Tuesday, February 17, 2009

India and Pakistan Find Common Ground, Unfortunately in Gender Inequality

Typically, when discussing women’s rights, political and economic freedoms and freedom of education in South and Southwest Asia, the focus of discussion tends to mainly revolve around the Talibanization of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Of course, the oppression of women’s rights in Pakistan and Afghanistan due to the oppressive nature of the Taliban and Talibanization of the SWAT region continues to be the most deplorable example of gender based violence on the planet. However, if recent events in India are any indication, Hindu Nationalist groups such Sri Ram Sena and Shiv Sena are engaging in their own form of 'Taliban-style' tactics, proving that in South Asia, the problem is not just with Muslims who are afraid of modernity, but the same can be said for Hindu extremist groups as well. Due to Secretary of State Hillary Clintons lifelong fight of gender equality, and President Obama’s new focus on South Asia by the appointment of Richard Holbrooke as Special Envoy to the region, hopefully, political leadership in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan take the necessary steps to combat religious extremists of all faiths who as a whole are attacking women for just attempting to ascend to their rightful place as an equal in society.

Now, traditional cultures found in the West as well can be seen protesting or demeaning women for demanding issues such equal work for equal pay and their right to choose as a serious issue. However, in Pakistan, India and Afghanistan, women continue to fight to come out of the Dark Ages, let alone their current struggle to equal political and social standing. Shedding just the basic beliefs that a woman has no place in the educational sphere, the workplace and economic standing; no doubt will remain a daunting task for generations to come. However, based on UN models of gender equality, India and Pakistan rank below China in terms of gender equality across the board. In fact, from 2005-2008, India and Pakistan have dropped in their Gender Equality Index, and show very little signs of improving due to newly invigorated religious extremists activities. Moreover, extremist groups have had a recent rise in political popularity due to increased protest and agitation by religious extremist groups, both Muslim and Hindu, and have created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation in order to secure the power among men.

Pakistan’s Declining HDI Ranking

Recently, the Government of Pakistan capitulated to the Taliban allowing Sharia Law to rule over the public sphere in the SWAT region of Pakistan. This will result in Pakistan falling further behind the rest of the world in terms of development issues, and no other demographic will pay a heavier price than woman. Pakistan already ranks 123rd in literacy, 142nd in primary and secondary education and 154th in life expectancy according to the Human Development Index created by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Given the reality that Pakistan already is teetering on becoming a failed state, by allowing further persecution and discrimination against women only furthers Pakistan’s complications of generating the necessary intellectual capital necessitated for growth. There are reports that the situation is improving in Pakistan with regards to education for young girls. However, due to the continued capitulation to hardliner demands, at what point will these so-called 'improvements' be internalized by Pakistan as a whole? Furthermore, from young girls to grown women, does Pakistan have enough time to survive for the actualization to take place?

India leads Pakistan in HDI, by a whisker

In India, the reality continues to deteriorate as well in terms of gender equality. According to the same UNDP statistics, India is 115th in literacy, 126th in primary and secondary education employment and 122nd in life expectancy with regards to women. According to a recent UNESCO Report on women in the public sphere, as India continues to attempt to rise from extreme poverty to modernity, women must play a critical role in all aspects of society if economic growth and development are to rise to even second world levels, and out of third world status. Of course, many people will point to Bangalore and Mumbai as examples of modernity and equality, however, these two cities are but a fraction of the reality within India. These types of examples are like comparing New York City to rural parts of Middle America where gender equality pale in comparison to one another. Hopefully, political parties such as the Bharatiya Janata Party will once and for all distance themselves from extremist organizations who are using this form of intimidation against women for political gains in the upcoming elections. It is time the Indian Government realize that creating nuclear weapons and having call centers in Bangalore does not make India a top-tier nation state. With over a billion people, one would hope that 500,000 young people would be able to do this work.

India and Pakistan share spotlight in gender persecution

There have been widespread reports of schools in Pakistan specifically for girls being burnt down. Woman in India being pulled from coffee shops in Delhi and Mumbai by Hindu Nationalists and beaten for sitting and talking with men. Even on Valentines Day, shopkeepers were threatened for participating. Of course, Valentines Day is a Western fabrication or what we like to refer to as a “Hallmark Holiday.” It took the resolve of a few minority secular groups to finally put an end to the violence being perpetrated by the Hindu Nationalists by making them the target of scorn and ridicule by placing boot polish on the faces of the perpetrators of religious fanaticism. However, the idea that women, let alone girls are ‘impure’ for the sake sharing a nice card or small trinket does fall exactly into line with the same practices of Islamic Extremists found throughout Pakistan, and a typical rallying cry by Hindu political nationalists as an example of why Muslims are the evildoers of the world.

An example of this can be found in the report that a brother and sister were beaten simply for walking together in the streets of New Delhi. Now, the report stated that they were “suspected” of dating because they were holding hands. However, everyone holds hands in South Asia! When a westerner sees two men holding hands in India, should they suppose those men are homosexuals because in western culture that is what it would symbolize? Of course not, this would be preposterous and succumbing to an ethno-centric point of view. Bottom line is, this type of behavior on display for the world to see has painted India into a position that Hindu Nationalists now can be viewed in the same light as the Taliban.

Oddly enough, the Kashmiri Separatist Hardliner, Syed Ali Geelani was the voice of reason during much of the violence against women being perpetrated by the Taliban in Pakistan. Mr. Geelani properly pointed out that the only way that Pakistan will grow as a nation is for equality among women in the educational sphere with regards to becoming doctors, teachers and lawyers, and deserve the right to be equal with a man in the work place. Geelani as the voice of reason on gender rights in South Asia? The world has turned on its head for sure.

There is little coincidence that the countries who rank that highest in the HDI Report also have the highest score in terms of gender equality. In fact, women trend to be higher wage earners, better-educated and greater contributors to society in terms of intellectual capital. And yes, they still have children and maintain a healthy functioning household by all traditional, albeit Western, standards. Hopefully, the spotlight shed on both India and Pakistan with regards to gender based violence in recent days will result in greater robust action against the threats and intimidation against a more just and equal society in the region as a whole.

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