Some hardliners claimed that the mixed-gender gathering at the human rights lawyer’s funeral was an affront to Islam.
It was not unexpected that the bigots Asma Jahangir had fought against throughout her life would try to sully her legacy in death; nonetheless there was an unusual ferocity to the manner in which Pakistani right-wingers lined up to attack her funeral itself.
Anchors like Orya Maqbool Jan thundered from their electronic media pulpits about how the mixed-gender gathering was an affront to Islam, right-wing social media pages of all stripes denounced the mourners as having warred against God Himself, and prominent clerics of various sects lined up to offer fatwas declaring her funeral prayers null and void.
The response of most liberals and progressives to such vitriol was a predominantly defensive one. Many tried to respond earnestly to the accusations of anti-religiousness, pointing out that the admissibility of mixed-gender funerals was a contested issue, that there was no reference to its impermissibility in religion and that numerous precedents exist in Islamic history of women attending funeral prayers and so forth.
One can understand such responses; there is much of value in using scriptural reasoning from within the Islamic tradition to push back against the idea that the regressive ideals of the clergy and political Islamists represent the totality of the Islamic faith.
Yet far too often, such defenses take the right-wing critique at face value and fail to unmask the dubious interests hidden underneath the attacks.
In this case, the right was belying its tenuous claims to gender justice by revealing itself as the perpetual vanguard of patriarchy that it is.
Through its full-throated defense of gender segregation, it exposed itself as the defender of a system designed to keep women hidden, excluded and firmly subordinated to men.
Gender segregation is taken to be an established fact of life in Pakistan. Couched in the religio-cultural language of purdah, it is practiced in every region and ethnic group, in cities, towns and rural areas, in offices and weddings, and from traditional settings to even more relatively open spaces.
The terms and severity of enforcement can vary, but its ideological basis and social practice remains largely unchallenged at a social level, as evidenced by the sheer absence of women in public spaces in any average town in the country.
The right – and the millions who have imbibed its ideology – like to pretend that the creation of separate spheres for men and women guards against the ‘moral corruption’ that is so pervasive in the ‘decadent West’.
The right frames segregation as relating to the ‘natural’ roles of men and women, as though it were an equal separation into social spheres tailored to men and women’s naturally distinct abilities and needs.
This characterisation of segregation is manifestly untrue. In a rigidly patriarchal social context where the disparities between the genders are so vast in every field of life, segregation amounts to nothing less than a means to exclude women from the public sphere and prevent them from wielding social, economic and political power.
In Pakistan’s context, it forms a central fulcrum of the patriarchal system that inhibits women’s progress in all walks of life by limiting their social roles to the private sphere.
While the more flagrant forms of violence – such as honour killings – that segregationist discourse engenders are better recognised, less is acknowledged about the more subtle, systemic ways in which it excludes women.
Take the case of education. Pakistan’ entire public education system is structured to meet the demands of purdah, with separate schools for boys and girls from primary to high school level. In theory, this could simply mean boys and girls receiving an equal education separately.
Yet the reality is that segregated education is far from equally provisioned – boys’ schools and colleges in the public sector outnumber those for girls’ by a staggering 36,000 (with roughly 3 boys’ schools for every 2 girls’ schools), a ratio that gets worse at higher levels of schooling.
It is no surprise therefore, that girls drop out at higher rates than boys given that they have successively fewer opportunities as they grow older, with some districts even lacking a single high school for thousands of girl students.
In many cases, the lack of girls’ schools could be corrected very simply, by opening existing schools in a region to both genders; but beyond some such instances at primary level, segregationist ideology ensures that working class girls are prevented from continuing their education after they reach adolescence.
Often, when progressive teachers attempt to circumvent segregationist norms to admit female students in boys’ high schools and colleges, they are met with fierce opposition from right-wing colleagues who deem co-education ‘un-Islamic’.
Segregation’s insidious effects extend beyond education into other spheres of life. The history of Pakistan’s approach to women’s health is also one where the health system has been structured to cater to segregationist dictates.
Multiple studies have documented how norms of purdah severely limit rural and working class women’s ability to access healthcare, particularly reproductive health.
Yet instead of challenging such bizarre cultural values that actively threaten women’s lives, the state has always chosen to reinforce and reify them.
Pakistan spends billions to circumvent the constraints of purdah in health care provision; the government recruits tens of thousands of mobile female health workers whose sole purpose is to cater to women’s health needs within their homes to avoid offending the sensibilities of patriarchs unwilling to let ‘their’ women come into contact with unrelated men.
Needless to say, such programmes, which demand resources, skills and capacities in short supply in the country, and which are further limited by patriarchal constraints on female health workers, often fall short in adequately meeting women’s health needs.
Segregationist tendencies also bear significant responsibility for Pakistan’s shockingly high maternal and infant mortality rates. Beyond their resistance to contraception, men often resist facility births, viewing home births as the only ‘honourable’ way for mothers to give birth, regardless of the consequences for the mother and infant.
Partly as a result of this, only 34% of births in Pakistan take place in health facilities. Little wonder then that a mother dies of giving birth in Pakistan every 20 minutes, and our infant mortality rate is the highest in the world.
The evidence is clear; the health of both women and children is positively correlated with women’s higher levels of education, greater mobility and decreased observance of purdah.
The unbending commitment to gender segregation by conservatives is in fact a rejection of women’s physical, mental and emotional well-being.
Pakistani patriarchy’s insistence on secluding women in the domestic sphere also severely limits women’s economic participation and independence.
Pakistan has one of the lowest female labor force participation rates in the world – a mere 22 percent of women are part of the paid labor force, leading to a disproportionately financially powerless female population, overwhelmingly dependent on men for financial sustenance.
Women are hence kept in particularly severe forms of poverty despite the fact that the value of Pakistani women’s unpaid domestic labor has been conservatively estimated by some studies at $25 billion a year (nearly a fourth of GDP).
As social scientists like Haris Gazdar have argued through their research, gendered segregation in the economy is not solely a question of female disadvantage – it is a norm that actively enables other forms of hierarchy and segmentation in society, preventing the development of more universal group identities and solidarities.
It is no accident that gender segregation thrives in our severely unequal society. In both rural and urban areas, the seclusion of women in the private sphere usually serves to keep them away from the possibility of interaction with men of a lower class, caste or status.
Gender segregation hence also inevitably functions as a form of class segregation, limiting the possibility of inter-group interaction and the possibility of familial ties and networks forming across class, caste, ethnic and religious lines.
Such adherence to purdah empowers an insular parochialism as the dominant mediator of the public sphere, sustaining class hierarchies, and inhibits the development of inclusive public goods and shared community spaces, as is the unfortunate case in Pakistan.
Many of the inequalities engendered by segregation could be addressed through gender-focused policy efforts aimed at rectifying such stark social and economic imbalances.
Yet the absence of social mobility, educational opportunity and economic clout that results from segregation also places limits on women’s ability to politically organise, resulting in a lack of women’s presence in spaces involving decision-making about their own lives.
Despite advances in women’s efforts to organise politically in recent years, women’s overall political participation remains severely circumscribed; constraints on women’s mobility and literacy lead to registered male voters outnumbering female voters by 12 million (amounting to a mere 78 women for every 100 men registered as voters).
Even smaller proportions of women find representation in legislatures (20% in 2013), the majority of them gaining their positions through quotas, often by virtue of their class and familial connections.
Within parties themselves, women often find themselves contained solely to ‘women’s wings’, which are often ceremonial and institutionally excluded from party decision-making structures.
None of the above is to suggest that women and men should not have separate spheres or they should be forced to desegregate against their will.
Freely-formed single-sex relationships, spaces and associations are not only often desirable, they can be quite necessary in the context of resisting patriarchal excesses, protecting against violence or even, quite simply, for the sharing and discussion of experiences distinct to one’s gender.
What needs to be resisted is the mandatory and unequal segregation institutionalised by the state, the clergy and patriarchal socio-cultural institutions, held in place through both indoctrination and violence in order to maintain oppressive gender-based hierarchies.
Psychological research has borne out the case for desegregation; meta-analytic tests of intergroup contact theory have demonstrated how, when groups are socially segregated by racial, gender and other categories, it engenders biases, stereotypes and prejudices about the ‘other’ group.
In the case of gender segregation, segregated institutions like the military and fraternities are known to produce patterns of behavior that lead to hyper-masculinity and gender-based violence.
When men exist solely in masculine spaces with little opportunity for normal everyday interaction with women, they are rendered unable to empathise with women’s lived experiences.
This leads to an inability to engage in basic social interaction, resulting in anger or violence in situations of emotional tension and creating public spaces where women are gaped at and harassed shamelessly without any concern for why that might be problematic.
Inter-group interaction in shared spaces on the other hand, reduces prejudice and enables empathy, cooperation and solidarity.
In Pakistan’s own context, some of the most peaceful, egalitarian and socially-transformative social movements in recent history – from the Okara peasant movement for land rights, to the katchi abadi struggle for housing rights – that have also fostered ethnic and religious solidarities, have been ones in which men and women have participated shoulder to shoulder with each other.
The most violent, xenophobic and fascistic movements on the other hand, from the Taliban insurgency to the Faizabad sit-in of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik – which have achieved literally nothing in terms of social or economic progress for their constituents – have been exclusively male and rigidly segregationist.
The arguments employed by advocates of gender segregation often echo arguments from another dark chapter in human history – racial apartheid.
The proponents of the pernicious Jim Crow laws in the United States that created separate spheres for black and white people (effectively amounting to apartheid for black people) also used to argue that segregation would ‘protect’ black people from experiencing racism and violence; that racial segregation was divinely ordained; and that racial mixing was a ‘direct defiance of God’s Will’.
As history has laid bare, such arguments grounded in divine sanction for inequality and the benevolent ‘protection’ of oppressed groups often serve simply to secure the privilege of the powerful.
Ultimately gender segregation also serves the same purpose – it protects the interests of patriarchy, securing for men a lifelong supply of free household labour, freeing them from the insecurity of ‘their’ women engaging with other men and perpetuating their patrilineal spheres of authority within the community and public sphere.
We cannot continue to explain away such monumental systemic injustices in the name of morality, cultural relativism or twisted patriarchal interpretations of religion.
However much Pakistani conservatives and Islamists try to frame gender segregation as simply a moral or religious issue, the reality is that it is a question of the violation of inalienable social, economic and political rights.
Our practice of segregation is a form of gendered apartheid that dehumanises women, enables their exclusion and prevents them from experiencing a complete and free human existence.
If we are to tackle gender inequality and other forms of injustice, we must actively dismantle the social, institutional and ideological infrastructure of gender segregation that has been accepted and internalised in our society for far too long.
Asma Jahangir’s funeral was radical precisely because it provided a glimpse of a horizon of equality beyond the stifling and unnatural human segmentation we have grown so accustomed to.
That is why it terrified the right-wing vanguard of Pakistani patriarchy. So too must it animate and fuel the efforts of Pakistani progressives fighting for an equal, peaceful and egalitarian future for our society and the world.
Published by special arrangement with Dawn.
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