The Americans do not have a monopoly on freedom and protection for women. This is the message from yesterday’s historic event in Islamabad where President Zardari signed the Protection Against Harassment of Women at Workplace Bill ensuring equal rights for men and women in accordance with the Constitution. This was an especially bold move by the President, who has taken a firm stand against religious parties, choosing instead to stand with the legacy of the Quaid.
“We have to create a Pakistan where the coming generations, my daughters, can be proud of the fact that they live as equals. We will make sure that those who wish to harm the ideology of the Quaid-i-Azam, which was for equality for men and women, shall not succeed,” he said.
The president, invoking the name of Benazir Bhutto, said: “We shall do our utmost by the end of this tenure. All the rights that we enjoy as men shall be enjoyed by women as well.”He recalled the commitment made by Ms Bhutto at the Beijing Conference and in the CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly) document, and urged the government to seek guidance from her vision to achieve gender equality.Mr Zardari recalled the struggle and sacrifices of Benazir Bhutto and said she was a symbol of strength, bravery and courage. “My wife was much stronger than me. She left a legacy for us to follow even she is guiding us from her grave.”
This bold move comes during a time when more and more Pakistani women are breaking down old social barriers and serving their country and commnunities in new ways. Earlier this week, Dawn reported about two women – Ambreen and Nadia – two of Pakistan’s first women fighter pilots.
Just last month, Naseem Hameed created history by becoming the fastest women in South Asia when the 22-year-old from Rawalpindi won the gold at the South Asia Games.
Despite these exemplary examples, however, Pakistani women continue to face harrassment and discrimination. Ironically, much of this comes from religious parties even though the Sunnah teaches that women are equal to men. Actually, Khadija was the Prophet’s (PBUH) partner – not his servant – and their marriage was characterized by love, respect, and cooperation. In fact, when Angel Jabriel first appeared to the Prophet (PBUH), he was very shaken and returned to Khadijah and asked for her advice.
The Sunnah is filled with references to reverence and respect for the equal status of women, but so is the history of Pakistan. In fact, unlike many Western nations, women have been legally able to vote in Pakistan since it was founded in 1947. Also, there is the exemplary tradition of the family of Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
President Zardari has also a strong tradition of service among the women in his family.
The president said both his sisters were members of parliament, while her two daughters would be back after completing their studies to serve the nation, along with their brother.
He paid rich tribute to the women who over the generations had strived for their rights since long and described them as “really a tribute to God’s divine creation.”
He also lauded the role of women which they played in history and said all religions accord them due regard, dignity and honour.
“Let us mobilise the collective power of women to help make our country, the region and the world more tolerant and secure for all,” he said.
Women’s organizations in Pakistan have praised the historic passage of the bill.
The Alliance Against Sexual Harassment (Aasha), a civil society organisation, which has been working on the issue, has described the signing of the bill a milestone for women.
Aqsa Khan of Aasha said: “This is a true partnership of citizens and the government. We want the government to ensure its implementation.”
She said: “Pakistan now stands as a leading country in South Asia for having a specific legislation against sexual harassment at workplace.”
Dr Fouzia Saeed, a woman activist who remained engaged with the process for two years, said: “The government has honoured its commitment for a progressive social legislation. This is a breakthrough and we expect continued support to other such laws to make society more civilised and accountable.”
She said in a statement that women activists were thankful to Shahnaz Wazir Ali, Sherry Rehman, Raza Rabbani, Senate Chairman Farooq H. Naek and senior leadership of the PPP. She said they were also very proud of members of the Awami National Party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement and many progressive parliamentarians of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q and the PML-N.
More than a symbolic gesture, President Zardari has called on all ministries to enact the code within one month, and has encouraged private sector companies also to cooperate in the implementation. All organisations, including federal and provincial government ministries, departments, corporations, educational institutions, private commercial organisations and registered civil society associations, will be required to constitute inquiry committees of at least three members each – one of them a woman – to probe complaints and give their findings within 30 days to the competent authority concerned that will award recommended penalties.