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A Life's Journey of my Sister in the Indo-Pak Subcontinent

Dear Michelle,

I am sure you, jolly well, must be aware, as a woman that despite being more than half of the world's population, we the female gender, is still considered either a subordinate or a commodity in the hands of men on this earth. The issues faced by us women all over the globe are numerous and it would take many a blogs to even list those issues. Female infanticide, girl child neglect, malnutrition, sexual abuse, illiteracy, economic slavery, women trafficking, domestic abuse, bride burning, moral policing-you name and that issue still exists among a large chunk of this world’s half population.

As India is my homeland and Pakistan the land of my husband and kids, Michelle, I have chosen to love both the countries as much and hence the plight of women in both the countries is very close to my heart. Broadly speaking, the issues faced by the women (my sisters) in both the countries are similar except for some minor differences in the magnitudes or the nomenclature.
I wish to recount here a typical journey that 'my sister' i.e. a typical woman lives in the Indian subcontinent right from her conception till her death.

A news of a pregnancy is rejoiced in our communities and right from that moment, the prayers begin wishing for a son. Rarely does one see people who wish for a girl especially in the absence of a male child. Hence the first rejection of her dignity is registered in a very subtle manner, right at her conception.

As the pregnancy progresses many an enthusiastic parents, especially in parts of India, frantically start to investigate for the gender of the baby growing in the womb and if confirmed a female--thanks to the practice of ‘female foeticide’--some of my sisters end up being aborted just for being a girl. Hence their life ends long before it actually is destined to begin, of living in this world.

Among those who open their eyes in this world—not many are in a position to call themselves lucky.

My little sister is raised as a secondary to her male sibling. She is fed once her male siblings or other male members of the household have had their share, and hence she embarks upon the journey of life malnourished right from the outset. From the birth till death she is under the control and command of a male ‘guardian’ be it a father, a brother, a husband or a son.

While her male sibs go out to play, she is asked to stay indoors and help the mother in house chores. And even if her brother is lucky enough to go to school, she is, in many places , told to stay behind looking after the younger sibs, no matter how much she aspires to acquire education. About more than 3 out of 5 of my young sisters from toddlers to adolescence, in Pakistan fall prey to the beastly lust of men and that too known uncles or cousins (in 90% of cases) in the form of sexual abuse, molestation or rape.

As she attains an appropriate ‘age’ the elders decide that it is time for her to move on with matrimony. What is the age of her groom is purely her luck—he could be a young boy of her age or if the parents are lucky to get a good price—then the groom could be as old as her father. The age is no bar. She is by now well trained to not to express her like or dislike and could be subjected to any sort of oppression to make her obey the decision in case she dares to defy.

The marriage for my sister, Michelle, does not by any means, mean liberation from an oppressive father or an authoritarian brother, but a mere transfer of control and command of her life and existence, to her husband. In many a communities in Pakistan, if she opposes, she is subject to severe punishment in the form 'honor killing' or else.
And out of those who do get married, a third have to bear the taunts and torture at the hands of the in laws for not bringing enough of the dowry. Some are even doused with kerosene and burnt alive ( 'Bride burning') in India and sometimes in Pakistan too.

National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), India said a total of 7,618 incidents of dowry deaths were in 2006 , in India, an increase of 12.2 percent over 2005.

On the other hand, in many parts of India, and Pakistan, 1 out of 3 of my really poor sisters stay unwillingly single simply because their parents do not have enough to pay for their 'dowry'. Literally speaking the groom is up for sale with a price tag of dowry.

However not just the poor even the rich sisters of mine in Pakistan meet the same fate. Their Feudal Lord fathers and brothers do not want their lands to be divided by giving the daughter her share. So the daughter is loaded with jewelery , expensive clothes and 'married to the QURAN'. Yes, Michelle, this is true and I do not exaggerate even a bit.

Once in wedlock , almost half of my married sisters have no control over their own life and body. They cannot decide how many children to bring forth.

Every hour that ticks by, in India, inflicts more brutality on women, with 2 rapes, 2 kidnappings, 4 molestations and 7 incidents of cruelty from husbands and relatives, reveal the latest national crime statistics, National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).

Similarly, 4 out of 5 women are subject to some kind of domestic abuse—either verbal, economic, psychological or physical violence in Pakistan according to Human Rights Watch.

And the physical violence is not just beating—it could be in the form of physical or sexual violence, torture, mutilation, acid throwing on the face, burning her alive or even strangulating her to death.
And only a minority of cases come into the knowledge of the authorities or in the news, out of which only a handful are proven guilty and punished. Majority of them manipulate to get it seen as an accident and remain Scot free to repeat the same offense with another innocent sister of mine.

We, both in India and Pakistan, are religious communities but unfortunately the onus of upholding religious obligations and principles begins and ends with a woman. She is morally policed and reprimanded if she deviates from the norm, but if the same offense is committed by a man, everyone including our religious leaders turn the other way.

As she grows older, my elderly sister is seen as the embodiment of sacrifice, patience, and morality while the men gallop like stags all over doing as they please. After all it’s a man’s world out there.

She may have worked, however hard, to raise her family or run the household, and is thus called a 'homemaker', but she does not get any share in those assets which she assists in her husband amassing in his name. If she is divorced for any valid or invalid reason, she has to walk out of the house with bare hands as all that 'home' she has assisted her husband in 'making' is entirely his.

She grows old and the command and control shifts from the husband to her son. She is seen as an embodiment of selflessness, sacrifice and patience . The younger girls are shown the glory of her selflessness and asked to emulate her.

Finally, my elderly sister dies a quiet death, without even realizing that she deserved a far better deal in life than was given to her . And hence the relay of her life which began from the passing of a baton from being an obedient daughter to a sacrificing sister to a dutiful wife to a selfless mother, finally ends as a ‘great’ woman into her grave.

This is the typical story of a good 50 % of the women in the subcontinent if not more.

It has been going on for ages and shall go on unless we make some real dent in the situation.

The only way she can come out of this vicious circle is by providing her 'quality' EDUCATION.

As a woman gets educated, a whole family including her subsequent generations get educated too. She gets empowered to take the right decisions from the choices in her life—be it her selection of spouse, or her decision to bear how many children or how to raise intellectually superior children.

Education will also empower her to realize that she has her rights too, and not just her duties that are rubbed on her face all her life.

Education will enable her to treat her own daughter as an equal to her son.

Education shall empower her to earn a better livelihood, and make her come out of economic dependence from the men in her life.

Educated woman who is free to make her decisions, is a happy woman and raises a happy family. A happy family brings forth happy citizens. And happy citizens contribute positively not only towards their own homeland but also the whole planet, at large.

Hence, we do not need any rocket science to discover how to empower a woman. Simply ensure her ‘proper and quality education’ and she shall take the reins of her life in her control.

I hope it isn’t asking for a lot, Michelle.

Thank you.


Dr Ilmana Fasih

9 February 2011

As the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women officially begins its work this month, World Pulse is asking women worldwide: What is YOUR vision and recommendation for UN Women? We invite you to raise your voice by writing a letter to UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet outlining your recommendation for how this new UN agency can truly affect change on the ground to promote gender equality and uphold the rights and needs of women both on a local and global scale.
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