It seems there are no women in Peshawar, even if it is the urban centre of the Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province in Pakistan. The streets are lined with men pushing carts, men scratching ears, men holding hands. Young men, old men, men with beards and one twirling a moustache.
As I settle onto the carpet of a gem-polishing outlet in the Namak Mandi market, I am received with the utmost courtesy. The qehwa tea is delicious and the young Pushtun entrepreneur insists on speaking impeccable English, while shaking his head with the most polite form of firmness.
“No room. There is no room for women in this business.”
But why? The female hand can be a steady one, she can have an eye for detail in work requiring finesse.
“Look around you, Madam. This is how we operate. How will a woman come, go, take work? Will she sit in an open shop like this, in the open marketplace?”
I diligently continue scribbling notes on the Value Chain for gems, but while watching the crowd swilling about us I do wonder the same.
Mobility is one of the core issues surrounding female empowerment in Pakistan - whether it is for the oft-invoked cliche from rural Khyber Pukhtunkhwa; the respectable middle class representative; or the chauffeur-driven urban elitist. Fixed perceptions of gender often translate into limited options when it comes to earning an independent income. Boy-girl discrimination is taken as a matter of course, even by reasonably progressive people. The boy’s style is to inform; the girl’s perennial question is, “May I?” May I take the bus, may I take the car, may I improve my bargaining power in the household?
For underdeveloped regions, education is one of the most critical areas affected by lack of female mobility. The LEAPS research project, spearheaded by greats from Harvard University, refers to the “distance penalty” faced by girls: for every 500 m increase in the distance to schools, the drop in female enrolment is three to four times as high as that for boys. The argument is that the need for a male chaperone transporting girls to and from school means a loss of productive hours – hardly a worthwhile trade-off for people who may be struggling for subsistence.
If always dependent on another for transport, the female will forever be caught in an arrangement of mutual inconvenience. Logistics, therefore, must be an important consideration for development interventions aiming to increase female involvement in academic and economic life. From encouraging schoolgirls to home-based workers and entrepreneurs, practical access to the outside world has to be facilitated. In terms of building an enabling environment, decent public transport needs greater recognition as a priority.
Since differences in gender roles depend on societal perceptions, there is scope for change once the idea of a mobile female is accepted as a matter of course. What is needed, then, is a precedent, to be created either through the media or a concentrated campaign to make roads and buses more female-friendly. When we have an environment where a girl travelling by public transport will not fear harassment, or a lone girl driving will not be made to feel so brazen, that is when we’ll know we are moving towards becoming a productively progressive society.
Virginia Woolf spoke of “A Room of One’s Own” and a stable income as necessary prerequisites for talented women to achieve their potential. If asked to speak about women and Pakistan today, a desi Woolf’s lecture may have been styled along the lines of “A Car of One’s Own”. After all, without access to the right resources, latent genius is going nowhere.