Malala Yousufzai: Women’s Rights and the Narratives of Ruling Elites

October 17, 2012

Akram Javed

We reproduce below an article on Malala Yousufzai, published in The Platform. The original article is available here.

After the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan shot 14-year old Malala Yusufzai for encouraging girls’ education, Pakistan’s liberal intelligentsia and the Western media went into overdrive.

You’d think that if it weren’t for the Taliban shooting at them, millions of girls in Pakistan would be sitting in school, and that if you’re not endorsing American drone strikes in Pakistan, you might as well be signing death warrants for school-going girls.

These kinds of stories are convenient for Pakistan’s entrenched ruling classes, which include the generals of the Pakistan Army, and for American imperialism, but they have very little to do with the deeper truth. The reality isn’t so complex, but it has to be spelled out a bit.

Let’s look at the issue of girls and schools. Pakistan actually has one of the worse rates of primary level (ages four to nine) net enrolment in all of Asia, with about 40 per cent of children out of school in 2010–11*. The figures get much worse at the secondary level.

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the province most hit by militancy, the net enrolment rate of girls at the primary level is 51 per cent. This is actually somewhat better than the 47 per cent rate in Sindh, the province least affected by militancy. At the middle level (ages ten to twelve), net enrolment of girls is 13 per cent in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and 17 per cent in Sindh. At the matric level (ages 13 to 14), the figures are six per cent and ten per cent of girls, respectively. Boys are also enrolled at very low rates, though marginally greater than girls.

The Taliban and other militants attack schools and publicly intimidate children, especially girls, who seek education. This is undoubtedly reprehensible yet, though they are making an already dismal situation worse, it is clear that they haven’t created the problem. (For that matter, the Americans and Pakistan Army have also attacked schools, but I digress.)

In fact, all of Pakistan’s social indicators, including health, are very poor. How do we explain this general underdevelopment and explain Pakistan’s gender gap?

Basically, Pakistan is a country with incredible inequality and the ruling classes, like ruling classes everywhere else, seek to maintain this inequality.

A good chunk of Pakistan’s economic and political inequality is rooted in control of land. As of 2010–11, 45 per cent of the labour force works in agriculture, of which nearly 40 per cent are women. Yet, in 2000, 86 per cent of farms in Pakistan were smaller than the subsistence minimum of 12.5 acres. The other 14 per cent of farms operated 56 per cent of the country’s agricultural area!

Patriarchy is deeply connected to rural inequality, where women rarely have ownership or control of land. The reproduction of the household is based upon the labour of women, and then women are also called upon to work outside of the household—they do more work, on the whole, than men. When women get married, they often move to another village. In order to prevent land fragmentation and declining land productivity, women are not given ownership or control of the land that should be theirs by inheritance right. Dowries are often considered pre-inheritances.

The regulation and control of the female body is thus deeply tied to the reproduction of the agrarian economy. As it happens, land and women are also tied up with struggles over respect and honour. This has very little to do with Islam as such—walk across the border to India and you’ll find similar, if not worse, gender disparities and oppression.

It’s important to note that this isn’t a rural problem alone. Overall, women are expected to conduct the unpaid labour of the household, while men get paid for their labour elsewhere. Of course, it is not uncommon to find women working for wages in other people’s homes or in industries, but the general idea is for women to remain at home. When it comes to education, then the education of boys tends to be prioritised.

Aside from political economy, women are considered subjects to be controlled by men. So, for instance, women’s presence in public places is rendered up for scrutiny on the part of males. This is not unchanging, though; as repressive governments leaning on particular interpretations of Islam further facilitated gender oppressive norms, they made worse the devaluation of women in general.

In sum, a combination of political economy and cultural politics is responsible for the low status of women.

This is something of a simplified picture, and in Pakistan, as elsewhere, things are more complicated. The point is that the basic problems of political economy and cultural politics, and the ways in which these are rooted in gender oppression, cannot be laid at the doorstep of the Taliban or religion. The Taliban themselves are partly a product of Pakistan’s highly unequal and patriarchal rural society, a product of Pakistan’s generalised underdevelopment.

Actually addressing these problems requires moving beyond simplified stories and has to involve deep, far-going, revolutionary changes in Pakistan’s political economy and cultural politics. Crucially, we have to get at the entrenched power of Pakistan’s ruling classes. Rural elites are one important factor, whether in their guise of “democratic” politicians or of cynical intermediaries for the military, as they exploit the masses on the one hand and extract and distribute state patronage on the other.

Part of the reason there has been so little spending on education, health or other social services in Pakistan is because the military consumes a huge proportion (nearly a third) of the national budget. This involves a sprawling military-operated agrarian and industrial empire, with strategic interests in transportation and real estate (and milk and cereal—seriously). The benefits of this empire go to the top echelons of the military.

The largest portion of Pakistan’s national budget (nearly half) goes to paying off odious debts to domestic and foreign financial institutions, such as the IMF. For their part, international institutions have said little about Pakistan’s deeply entrenched inequalities or about the perverse control of the military over large sections of the political economy. They are focused on making Pakistan’s economy more amenable to international trade flows and international capitalist exploitation, not on uplifting the masses.

The other aspect of international intervention is, of course, the United States bombing of Pakistan, although we should recognize that drone strikes are just the tip of the military operations being carried out in Pakistan, which have caused millions to become internal refugees. And here, we get to the crux of the problem.

For one, America helped create many of these militant outfits back in the 1980s to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Now, American bombing in Pakistan tends to target the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda, not the Pakistani Taliban. What’s more, American bombing blows up markets, schools, cars, homes, roads, weddings, funerals, etc, where—sometimes—militants happen to be, and the rest of the times America will just pretend by counting all males above a certain age as militants (the women who die are, of course, collateral damage).

America does not blow up semi-feudal agrarian relations, or predatory capitalism, or Pakistan’s military-agrarian-industrial complex. It does not blow up patriarchy or gender oppression. On the contrary, by directly supporting Pakistan’s Army and the rural elites, amongst others, America supports these pernicious aspects of Pakistan’s political economy and cultural politics. And by bombing innocents, it merely produces fertile recruits for the reprehensible militants who are the very product of the same debauched political economy, cultural politics and imperialism America keeps maintaining.

The order of the day in Pakistan is opposing the many power-holders who suffocate the populace at large and changing, from the roots, its political economy and cultural politics. That means that you can, and should be, opposed to the Taliban and to American imperialism, for they are two sides of the same coin.

The challenge is to develop a properly revolutionary politics against semi-feudalism, predatory capitalism, the military-agrarian-industrial complex and imperialism—for a just and equalitarian society.

*Note: All figures cited in this article are from the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics.