While sex is determined biologically, gender is an ideological and societal concept. Since gender is not a divine concept, it can be changed and challenged, said gender specialist Shahbano Aliani.
Taking to The News on the eve of International Women’s Day, Aliani said: “Gender is a neutral term. Gender equality entails that while you are physiologically different, yet you are equal in terms of treatment, respect, rights and opportunities. People need to be gender sensitive, and this comes from recognition of differences among sexes and the realisation that needs of different sexes are different,” she explained.
Aliani earned her Masters degree from Cornell University and has been associated with human and women rights’ organisations in the United States and Pakistan for about 13 years. Presently she is the Gender Advocacy & Networking Senior Manager at Thardeep Rural Development Programme (TRDP), a non-governmental organisation (NGO).
She said that society was constantly in a process of transformation and change. According to her, for the past 2,500 years or so, human beings have been living under a patriarchal society. It has been argued by various philosophers that gender inequality is linked to private property. “When the concept of property came, there was a need by men to know who their children were. Women, therefore, became the objects of control because they were the ones who produced children. Every thing was subsumed to this role.” Aliani said that people also speak of the “construction of femininity and masculinity,” but masculinity needed to be changed as well. “Femininity de-humanises women by constructing them as irrational, emotional, weak, helpless etc. They become less human,” she said. “Similarly, masculinity de-humanises men.”
“Men are always expected to project strength even in their moments of weakness,” she said. “Extreme masculinity leads to violence at personal level and in society. Thus while women are not allowed to be independent and assertive, men are forced to be strong. The societal system is unfortunately set up in such a way that many men will fail as providers because at times they can’t cope. No wonder drugs and alcohol use is more common in men than women.”
Shameim Kazmi, Association of Business Professional and Agriculture Women President, had a different viewpoint. “I think in our perspective rural economy is much stronger and broader than urban areas. In those areas the concept of equality between men and women is not the same as in advanced or economically empowered countries of the world,” she told The News.
“In our rural areas, 60 per cent of agricultural labour force comprises of women. As per religious injuctions, she can make her own earnings over which she has complete control. Perhaps the distorted image of inequality is due to male-dominated culture prevalent in the sub-continent,” added Kazmi.
Sadly enough, women’s access to property, education and employment in Pakistan remains considerably low as compared to men. The social and cultural context of Pakistani society is predominantly patriarchal. Women have a low percentage of participation in society outside of the family. Despite the improvement in Pakistan’s literacy rate since independence, the educational status of Pakistani women is among the lowest in the world. The literacy rate for urban women is more than five times the rate for rural women. The school dropout rate among girls is also high (almost 50 per cent). However, educational achievements of female students are higher as compared to their male counterparts.
Sheema Kermani, a woman activist, artist, classical dancer and leader of Tehreek-i-Niswan said, “To me gender equality means that all human beings, men and women, get equal rights and are treated as the same. The basic fundamental rights in society — political, social and cultural values—are equal for men and women.”
Aliani pointed out that behaviour is taught by the society. “People are born female and male, but learn to be girls or boys who grow into women and men. They are taught their respective social behaviour and attitude. This learned behaviour is what makes up gender identity, and determines gender roles,” she said.