The challenge of discussing gender issues

ISLAMABAD: Although discussions at literary events rarely stay on topic, on Sunday, two separate sessions focusing on women and gender issues, got irreversibly sidetracked from their original premise.

The first, ‘Barriers to Girls Education’ was dominated by a presentation on a research study, carried out by the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (Sparc).

The session was meant to begin with Sparc’s Saadia Hussein introducing the research, after which other panellists were supposed to weigh in.

What happened instead, was that Ms Hussein took up nearly 45 minutes of the hour allotted to the session. While the research was pertinent and identified the factors leading to girls dropping out from schools, it contained far too many numbers and dense jargon. For example, one slide offered a comparison of teachers’ salaries with their qualifications, which flew over everyone’s head.

Discussions on women, gender sidetrack as panellists end up bemoaning govt apathy

Safia Aftab, the moderator, did not stop Ms Hussein from taking up three quarters of the time that was to be shared by all the panellists, who then had to rush through their speeches, which – if given more time – may have been far more engaging than a Power Point presentation.

Though rushed to wrap up her remarks quickly, Unesco’s Vibeke Jensen touched on some very interesting points, suggesting that there should also be a debate on why there are not any “fun” books, “which fill children with desire and make them want to read”, available to children in government-run schools.

Former education ministry adviser Haroona Jatoi touched on problems of policy implementation saying that the government realised there were barriers to girls’ education. However, her remarks were also curtailed by a lack of time. Educationist A.H. Nayyar also couldn’t make his point because there was very little time.

The second session, titled ‘Translating Gender’, featured a panel of accomplished artists and began with a discussion on how the depiction of women in art had changed through the years, especially over the past decade.

The discussion was initially quite engaging, with miniaturist Ayesha Durrani saying that women had always been depicted as an object of desire in paintings and were added for the sake of erotica.

Most of Ms Durrani’s own paintings are silhouettes of women, or mannequins without the heads.

“Women are considered to be less intelligent than men, so I figured women were not required to have a head, as long as their bodies were beautiful,” she said.

Another artist on the panel, Farida Batool, showed her work, highlighting how she had used the female form to portray the pleasure one seeks in violence and how women are only respected in theory.

She had painted the maps of Waziristan and Punjab on a pregnant belly, with pins depicting military movement.

“We usually refer to our country as the motherland and yet we carry out so much violence with it, which is the same as how treating women goes,” she explained.

Artist and educationist Salima Hashmi touched upon the effects of the Hudood Ordinance and how the changing portrayal of women was a result of them trying to free themselves of the oppressive laws that still exist.

Art curator Aasim Akhtar said the redefinition of gender roles in Pakistani art came about in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with the country trying to shake off the effects of an elongated dictatorship.

However, the discussion then ended up drifting towards government apathy about art. Panellists lamented how the previously-autonomous National Art Gallery was first moved to make way for the Prime Minister’s Secretariat, and then taken over by bureaucrats, who turned it into the Pakistan National Council of Arts (PNCA), where artists were not even invited to showcase their work.

Published in Dawn, April 18th, 2016

You can find a link to the story here

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