KARACHI (DAWN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - For most women in Pakistan, life - at least in broad strokes - is mapped out for them from the moment they are born. That is not to say that social attitudes have remained static: an increasing number of families send their daughters to school, even in more conservative areas, and support for girls' higher education is also on the rise.
At the same time, antediluvian notions of 'honour' continue to prevail and suppress women. Even with an education, their career aspirations are often thwarted, and they are expected to acquiesce to the wishes of their families in most matters.
Deviation from that template can result in severe consequences. Consider NGO worker Hina Shahnawaz, accomplished, highly educated and the sole breadwinner in her family, who was allegedly murdered by a cousin for working outside the home. There are many like her in this country, women who are considered renegades for defying an age-old social order, simply because they earn a living by dint of their own abilities without riding on a husband's or brother's coattails.
In this rigidly enforced patriarchy, to marry of one's choosing or to refuse a particularly persistent suitor can be perilous. Muqaddas Bibi, a young mother murdered for marrying against her family's will, Zeenat Rafiq, burned alive for a similar offence and Maria Sadaqat, a young schoolteacher killed for rejecting a suitor, were among the thousand or so last year alone who paid the ultimate price for exercising their freedom of choice. There's also Badam Zari, who was the first woman candidate from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) in the 2013 election, and fortunately lived to tell the tale.
By competing for public office, she confronted the hidebound culture in the most conservative parts of Pakistan that, in connivance with local chapters of mainstream political parties, prefers its women voiceless and disenfranchised.
By their acts of defiance, these women, and others like them, are forcing an inexorable - if gradual - change in society. They have to some extent in recent years been supported by the legislature that has enacted a number of pro-women laws to address issues such as sexual harassment, honour killing, forced marriage and domestic violence. Regressive elements, both in the assemblies and outside, have pushed back and constantly sought to dilute these gains. It is not a battle that will be won easily, but fight it we must.
Dawn is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 22 news media entities.