Status of Women and the Women's Movement

Four important challenges confronted women in Pakistan in the early 1990s: increasing practical literacy, gaining access to employment opportunities at all levels in the economy, promoting change in the perception of women's roles and status, and gaining a public voice both within and outside of the political process.There have been various attempts at social and legal reform aimed at improving Muslim women's lives in the subcontinent during the twentieth century. These attempts generally have been related to two broader, intertwined movements: the social reform movement in British India and the growing Muslim nationalist movement. Since partition, the changing status of women in Pakistan largely has been linked with discourse about the role of Islam in a modern state.

This debate concerns the extent to which civil rights common in most Western democracies are appropriate in an Islamic society and the way these rights should be reconciled with Islamic family law.Muslim reformers in the nineteenth century struggled to introduce female education to ease some of the restrictions on women's activities. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan convened the Mohammedan Educational Conference in the 1870s to promote modern education for Muslims, and he founded the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College. Among the predominantly male participants were many of the earliest proponents of education and improved social status for women. But literacy was slow: by 1921 only four out of every 1,000 Muslim females were literate.

Promoting the education of women was a first step in moving toward their empowerment. As independence neared, it appeared that the state would give priority to empowering women. Pakistan's founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, said in a speech in 1944:No nation can rise to the height of glory unless your women are side by side with you; we are victims of evil customs. It is a crime against humanity that our women are shut up within the four walls of the houses as prisoners. There is no sanction anywhere for the deplorable condition in which our women have to live.

The role of women, spearheaded by the Quaid's sister, Fatima Jinnah, in Pakistan movement cannot be gainsaid. After independence, Muslim women in Pakistan continued to advocate women's political empowerment through legal reforms. Another of the challenges faced by Pakistani women concerned their integration into the labor force. Because of economic pressures and the dissolution of extended families in urban areas, many more women are working for wages than in the past and contributing to national development. More and more urban women have engaged in such activities during the 1990s. The women's movement shifted from reacting to government legislation to focusing on three primary goals: securing women's political representation in the National Assembly; working to raise women's consciousness; and countering suppression of women's rights by defining and articulating positions on events as they occur in order to raise public awareness.