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The Express Tribune

Published Date: May 15, 2014

Inspiring change: Khawar terms religious extremism, discrimination biggest challenge

As women in Muslim countries face a three-headed monster of religious discrimination, rising violence and lack of opportunities, the women’s movement in Pakistan is also simultaneously witnessing a reduction in its allies.

"The biggest challenge is religious discrimination," Khawar Mumtaz, the Chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW), said as she spoke about her personal and professional life at the Sustainable Development Policy of Institute (SDPI) on Wednesday.

She identified multiple challenges to women and a possible solution to counter them.

Dr Maleeha Aslam, head of SDPI’s Gender and Human Security division, was in conversation with Mumtaz as part of SDPI’s "Inspiring Change: Women of Substance" series.

The series invites eminent Pakistani women for a public interview to rediscover their lives and work and pay homage to their contributions.

Mumtaz, who has built a distinguished career over three decades with work on women’s rights and environmental issues, said there were three major challenges facing women in Muslim countries.

"The biggest challenge is religious discrimination," she stated. "There is a certain interpretation of religion that controls women and does not see them as individuals with their own aspirations and ambitions."

"Violence against women in countries including Pakistan and the fear of such violence are both equally potent." These constitute the second major challenge for women. Thirdly, Mumtaz said women are confronted with a lack of opportunities. She mentioned the low enrolment levels of girls in Balochistan as an example of denial of opportunities.

"It is tough to tackle these challenges in Pakistan and men have to support  women in bringing down patriarchy." She noted that vocal allies of women’s movement — men, rights’ organisations, workers’ unions — are shrinking. She said the decrease might be due to a number of reasons including the imposition of other dominant ideas.

Mumtaz pointed out that a rethink might be required. "Maybe we need to strategise differently and use different tactics," she said about the women’s movement in Pakistan.

Mumtaz stated she was annoyed that in Pakistan’s development narrative the word "women" continues to be mindlessly substituted by "gender," obfuscating women’s perspectives and issues in the process. "Women’s issues are cross-cutting, which means there is a woman’s perspective for every issue."

For Mumtaz, a dream society would be affable and its people tolerant of opposing views. The originality in her research work, she said, was not due to a conscious effort but a commitment to approach issues seriously.

Mumtaz spoke at length about the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), of which she is a founding member, and its response as an indigenous, apolitical movement to discriminatory laws against women at the height of Zia’s martial law.

The NCSW chairperson, who self-identifies as a “researcher-cum-activist,” said one of her biggest regrets in life was that she could not pursue a PhD. Her marriage, for which she sacrificed an opportunity to study at Sorbonne in Paris, and WAF activism, for which she had to leave a university teaching position, proved to be the main crossroads in her life, she said.

She said her great-aunt Ismat Chughtai was an influential figure for all the women in her family and that always pushed her to challenge societal norms.

Shafqat Kakakhel, chairman of SDPI’s board of governors, said Mumtaz symbolises the concept of sustainable development as she advocates political and economic freedom, environmental protection, and social justice.

"Mumtaz has made relentless and highly significant contributions in Pakistan and South Asia in grass-roots activism."