12/20/2016 08:57 am ET Updated Dec 21, 2017

Women in Muslim Countries

A few months ago, when Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy won her Oscar, one of my friends got in a heated argument with me. His contention was that people like her were "maligning" the image of Pakistan by unnecessarily inflating some isolated incidents. In his opinion, her efforts were just creating negative stereotypical images of Pakistan and which made "enemies" of Pakistan feel comfortable in their hate. In his opinion, Pakistan's gender related issues were not systemic and were blown out of proportion. "It is just a tiny minority which is indulging in honor killings and it is unfair to present Pakistan in negative light", he argued.

Is he correct? Now, one can argue that honor killing, which Sharmeen highlighted in her film, is not massively widespread. But one can easily also counter argue that the mentality which gives rise to a horrific crime like honor killing is extremely pervasive. Honor killing is merely an extreme form of the same basic patriarchal thinking. This mode of thinking equates "honor" of the family with female chastity and if a female member of the family is perceived of transgressing some limits, then it creates "embarrassment" for the family which in turn leads to a range of possible reactions, of which honor killing is the most severe one. Honor killing in some circumstances has also taken place for extremely mundane reasons such as women singing in a mixed gathering.

But female chastity and its linkage with family's honor is only part of the larger problem of gender imbalance in Pakistan. The reality is that in Pakistan gender imbalance is systemic in nature and extends to several dimensions. Women in Pakistan have much lower share in employment, far less is spent on their health and education and moreover the legal infrastructure is highly skewed against them.

Some of these aspects of gender imbalance have been captured in World Economic Forum's Gender Gap Index, which has ranked Pakistan as second last out of the total 144 countries evaluated in 2016. Only Yemen, which is a war-torn country was placed below Pakistan. What makes this ranking really embarrassing is the fact that Pakistan is placed lower than many countries with lower per capita income. Extremely poor countries like Ethiopia, Nepal, Ghana etc. have been placed above Pakistan. Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, has been ranked at 72, showing that perhaps they made the right decision by separating from us!

This index measures gender parity from several dimensions including: economic opportunity; educational attainment; health; and political empowerment. Within the above subcategories, Pakistan is ranked 143rd in economic opportunity, 135th in educational attainment, 124th in health and 90th in political empowerment. Pakistan's relatively better position in political empowerment has come due to the fact that it had a female Prime Minister in the past and a somewhat sizable number of female legislators. This objective criteria ( since it merely measure the numbers of female legislators) does not capture the actual political power imbalance which exists in the society. Moreover, Pakistan's dismal rankings in other subcategories also reveals that merely having female legislators does not essentially translate into improvement for women in other areas.

And this gender gap index does not capture the social problems which women face such as rape, honor killing and work place sexual harassment. It also does not reflect the everyday misogynist and sexist behavior which any Pakistani woman can vouch that she routinely faces.

Rather than calling people like Sharmeen Obaid and Malala, who point towards an obvious reality as "enemies" of Pakistan, maybe we need to take a good hard look at the way, half of our population is treated. Maybe we need to understand that fake national pride aimed at presenting a glorified and misplaced image of Pakistan in the international arena is not the answer. If all we need to perhaps introspect and understand that there is a problem with the way we treat women. Pakistan has a systemic gender problem and denial is not going to help us.

However, I also think that gender imbalance is a general issue for Muslim countries and not just Pakistan. If we see the rankings closely we will find that Muslim countries are right at the bottom.
For example, out of 144 countries ranked in 2016, not even a single Muslim majority country makes it into the top 50. Kazakhstan is the top among Muslim countries (51st) and out of the 30 Islamic countries which have been ranked, 25 are in the last 50 (90-144). In fact, the last 15 countries (130-144) are all Muslim majority countries. This is an astonishing figure and clearly points to an across the board problem in the Muslim world.

Of all the factors, the fact that a country has Muslim majority is perhaps the strongest predictor of a country's position in this index.

What could be the reason behind that? In my opinion the reality is that Muslim countries by and large are time trapped and have failed to evolve due to religious orthodoxy. Religious orthodoxy is reflected in legal code which is skewed against women and also in the society's general mindset which is patriarchal. To quote, Lisa Beyer

" While it is impossible, given their diversity, to paint one picture of women living under Islam today, it is clear that the religion has been used in most Muslim countries not to liberate but to entrench inequality."

The gender problem in Muslim countries, needs to be addressed and frank acknowledgement is the first essential step towards that. Merely repeating that "Islam gives equal rights to women" is not going to solve the problem. Unless and until, the religious orthodoxy, through reforming the way we interpret religion, is addressed the problem will continue to persist. Let's not forget in countries like Saudi Arabia, even in this age and time, women are not allowed to drive. And if they remove their hijab at a public place, they can get into severe problems

Of course, this does not mean that orthodoxy is the only reason as to why gender imbalance exists in a given society. Let's not forget, that literally every society in the world has gender imbalance. The difference between societies is only in form and extent. However, religious orthodoxy is an important and critical causal factor, which is making the problem in Muslim countries more acute.

This article was first published on Express Tribune, Pakistan on 19th December.