Bridging Pakistan’s Gender Divide


“Our people won’t let a girl study beyond the third grade (eight or nine years old). But this girl here cries and says: ‘I want to learn’. And I love her so much that I have no choice but to send her away from our village, because no education is available here beyond primary school level. She will go to the big city and she will learn and be the first one in the family”.

I hear these words from a Pakistani father about his daughter back in the early 2000s, on my second research assignment for the International Crisis Group. I am travelling in Balochistan, an area affected by a decade-old insurgency. I am seeking to unpack the causes of militancy and conflict through meetings with former militants, political workers, rights activists and religious leaders.

The eagerness of a little girl to defy the odds against her studying still resonates for me, as does her father’s sympathetic support, despite all the obstacles of tradition. They epitomise countless testimonies I hear throughout my travels. Not only do they influence how I work, but they guide my understanding of Pakistan and of how people – especially but not only women and children – experience its violence and multiple conflicts.

Addressing Security Concerns to Advance Gender Equality in Pakistan

Crisis Group's South Asia Project Director Samina Ahmed talks about the importance of security for the advancement of gender equality in Pakistan. CRISIS GROUP

Unheard Voices, Invisible Forces

On this pivotal day for me in Balochistan, a region tucked up against Iran and Afghanistan, I am planning to meet liberal, secular political activists, opponents of the Islamist Taliban. The meeting at this house, sitting cross-legged on the floor are only men, with one exception: a little girl. Responding to my questions, her father explains her determination to go to school and praises her character and tenacity to fulfil her dream.

He then proposes that I speak to other women from their community to hear their perspectives and experiences of the situation in the province. Such an opportunity in a part of the country where men and women live segregated lives is rare for any outsider. I jump at the chance and am escorted to the part of the house where women of the family live, off-limits to all men barring close relatives.

A large group of women greet me, well-dressed for the occasion. They gather round, excited at the chance to meet an outsider. They start by asking questions. How can a woman do the job I do? How can I work alone? How do I travel long distances freely? Except for family visits once a year, they say, they never venture beyond the walls of their home. They begin sharing their experiences and life stories. Some tell me that they would like to be educated and to have a job. There is anger and frustration in their voices. They know what they want, but believe it beyond their reach.

This meeting has a profound effect on me. I am a longstanding women’s rights activist, and was a member of the Women’s Action Forum in the 1980s during military rule. Having studied in universities in Pakistan and abroad, and worked in several countries, I am comfortable standing up for myself in a man’s world. But experiencing real, well-articulated frustration on both male and female sides of a traditional Pashtun household makes me start to think anew about the gender divide.

I begin to understand the importance of integrating gender power dynamics into my conflict analysis by listening to women and girls in conflict-affected areas, even if they are publicly invisible. I come to realise that being a female researcher is a definite plus, as it gives me access to women as well as men. That day I make a conscious choice: I will redouble efforts to interview women as well as men, understand how they experience violence and their perspective on ending it and harness their potential to help build a more peaceful society.

The Remotest Reaches of Pakistan

In my years at Crisis Group I travel throughout Pakistan, from the slums of its largest city, Karachi, on the Indian Ocean to the hamlets of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa along the border with Afghanistan. I talk to people of all walks of life, especially the unheard and invisible parts of society. These include not just the voices of girls and women, but also those of political party workers, fishermen and farmers struggling for survival in often harsh and inhospitable terrain.

As a female researcher, I face no resistance while at work. The challenges are those faced by every woman travelling in Pakistan. The absence of public toilets for women, for example, poses not just a health but also a security hazard. Overall, though, during my trips, including times when I am the only woman staying in hole-in-the-wall hotels, I find that people are especially anxious to ensure that I am comfortable and safe.

Being a professional, at times people forget that I am a woman. They rarely treat me as an outsider, or a woman not conforming to local norms. The exception is in urban centres where I visit more conservative madrasas or mosques, though even there, people do not stop or openly rebuke me. Only very occasionally does someone ask me to cover my hair, as normally expected of a Muslim woman in Pakistan. Through their demeanour, however, people can convey that they are at least uncomfortable if not hostile to independent women like myself.

Of course I am conscious that not all Pakistani women think like me. This strikes me most forcefully one day on a visit to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. I attend a session of the local parliament, where the ruling Islamist Party has a large number of female parliamentarians. Yet it is the men who talk, while the women simply sit there in silence.

“Aren’t you going to take part in the debate?”, I ask one of the women from the Islamist Party.

“No, my male leaders will talk on my behalf”, she retorts.

Providing a public platform to women is sometimes not enough to ensure that they themselves express their views and needs. In some cases, women in public life may also serve as proxies for other interests.

And yet I also see women and girls, like that little girl in the remote household in Balochistan, who want to speak out, who want to learn, who want an education, and whose menfolk are sometimes willing to listen to them.

The Madrasa Paradox