She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. (…)— Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own.
I maintain that she would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worthwhile
The story of female suppression is written across Pakistan’s long map in more languages than our people can speak. Statisticians: last year, the World Economic Forum found us second only to our war-torn neighbor in the gap between men and women. Linguists might enjoy the way ‘honour’ and ‘killing’ can be placed so near one another in descriptions of karo kari. And most of us are children when we first hear what happens to women each day, in their homes, in schools, on the highway, crimes so common they’re understood by the vaguest of references. See?
Money is a character in this story. It’s a character in most stories; its lack felt by women who can’t afford to leave, its strength forgotten by those who haven’t lived without it. It’s not uncommon for a woman to be discouraged from work, or to be kept away from household income. These asymmetries in financial access can trap women in painful predicaments, material and emotional threats hanging over them and prospects that weaken as the gap in their resume grows. In a kinder world, dependence on one another would only ever be a source of strength. That’s not yet the sort of place we live.
Financial independence, then, is a condition of healthy dependency. But it is also a privilege we enjoy more than our mothers did. More in cities than in the sprawling countryside, more amongst the wealthy than amongst the poor, but women are working. Earning. Saving. Sometimes in secret, sometimes with support. Either way, the plea for gender equality has, for a long time, gone beyond whispers in the corners of society. It has gathered voices and volume, and now makes itself felt in public spaces, in schools, in streets – this is worth celebrating. Yet, women remain measurably, significantly, behind. There are two elements to the structure of hierarchy, always. One is where you stand in absolute terms: how much money do you make each month, week, hour? What do you own? Do you have people who could help you if you needed them to? How much have you saved? The second is about the malleability of that same structure rather than your first position in it. Can the hierarchy be negotiated with? Is upward social mobility even possible, or are the facts of your birth enough to dictate the rest of your life, holding you in one place like quicksand, no matter which way you reach?
The work known (however contentiously) as ‘development’ focuses on the first element. Grants, donations, loans, and so on. It’s easy to see why; it’s easier to offer stacks of money than to address the systems that ensure money alone isn’t enough, easier to give a girl a fish than to teach her how to catch one. Just one institution alone – take welfare, or education, as examples – is a mammoth too large to take in, intricate threads of procedure tangled to make an unwieldy mess. The list of public institutions that create the barriers to mobility, meanwhile, might be too long to produce, let alone examine.
So to avoid complete disavowal, we propose breaking things up. Keeping a foot on the gas. Remedies in parts. A few examples: CV strengthening in your free time. Vocational training during a light week. Working to improve your financial literacy. You can imagine this last one in particular pertains to us. But this isn’t a sales pitch; just a reminder that we’re (all, in this country) acutely aware of the ills Pakistan suffers from. It’s an awareness so large, in fact, that it can lead us to check out entirely. But it leads to other places, too. To working for change. To initiatives for good. To sites of effort in the direction of collective support, education, and, indeed, investment in our shared future. We are trying to make one; there are countless others, for us, for our children, our sisters and mothers. As Wolff wrote nearly a century ago, those who are not here with us would come if we worked for them. And so to work, despite everything, is worthwhile.