January 13, 2006

Women in quake-hit Pakistan break old barriers

By Suzanna Koster

MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan (Reuters) - The massive quake
flattened Shazia Noreen's house and killed her daughter. Her
life shattered, Noreen defied convention in Pakistan's
male-dominated, Muslim society and went out to find work.

Scraping together meager savings, she built a small
corrugated-iron shop next to the tent where her family now

"It is our family tradition to keep women in the house, but
I'm going to change that tradition," Noreen said with a grin.

Noreen is one of countless women in northern Pakistan whose
lives were turned upside down by the October 8 earthquake that
killed more than 73,000 people and left 3 million homeless.

With many men out of work -- Noreen's husband lost his
motorcycle taxi in the disaster -- and their families
destitute, some women have broken with tradition and found a
job. And their menfolk, however reluctantly, have gone along
with it.

Noreen said that, with no money coming in, her husband had
agreed to let her open her shop.

The flood of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that
have come to help with quake relief has given women an
unprecedented opportunity to get out of their homes.

"Most women can't even buy an aspirin on their own," said
women's rights activist Taqdees Gillani. "They have to consult
their brothers, father or husband first, but NGOs have provided
them a chance to come out."

Rights workers say there has been a big change in attitudes
toward women and work.

"It is a sudden and vast change," said Raja Nawaz, project
coordinator with the International Human Rights Observer

"Before this disaster, it was very difficult to get females
to work in the private sector or in the NGO sector. It's
astonishing that women have started working outside their


The Pakistani government, though criticized at times for
what women's activists see as failure to act against injustices
against women, promotes an enlightened, moderate form of Islam
and female rights.

Noreen Arif, minister of social welfare in Pakistani
Kashmir, was enthusiastic about the trend of women working,
saying financial independence would give them more freedom.

"If she is financially strong, she can decide how to live
her life. Otherwise she has to listen to the dictations of her
husband," Arif said.

But in many parts of the country, including its northern
mountains where the earthquake struck, women working outside
their homes is seen as a violation of deeply held religious and
traditional beliefs.

"It is not very easy for women to come forward and do a
job," said Khalid Ismail, another rights observer.

"It is considered faithless when women work outside their
homes and it can bring shame upon the males of the family."

An Islamic scholar in Muzaffarabad said a woman could work
if her husband, brothers or father had no objections and as
long as she covered her face and body. But he said he was
concerned about the safety of the new working women.

"I am not satisfied that in the NGOs women or girls can do
their work safely," said Kazi Bashir Ahmad, registrar at the
city's Islamic court.

"So in these circumstances I do not agree that she can do
her job with the males. There is not enough maturity in

But in some families, the earthquake ended such traditional
ways of thinking.

Noor Ulain said she had always wanted to find a job when
she finished studying, but her father had never agreed. But
after the quake struck, badly damaging her family home, he

"He said: 'If you still want a job, you can'," said the
19-year-old, who has a college education and now works as a
childcare worker for the Oxfam aid agency.

Serena Bibi's husband also never let her work before and
always wanted her to observe purdah, the strict separation of
men and women, and the covering of women in enveloping burqas.

After the earthquake, the middle-aged woman started a
committee in her village with 28 women, most of whom had never

Now they carry out surveys to assess shelter needs in their
community for an international relief organization.

"We are not so effective yet, but once we get used to it we
will be," said Bibi.

Oxfam's country representative, Farhana Farooqi Stocker,
said her organization was trying to hire women without work

"We find it important to influence gender imbalances which
are across the country, not only in the earthquake-affected
areas," she said.

She also said the new working women were role models.

"It influences the vision of their brothers and fathers
that there is another role that their women can take up," she

Women like Noreen, with her tiny shop, are enthusiastic
about the opportunities, but her 12-year-old son is not

"I don't like it that my mother meets strange men," the boy
said, keeping a close eye on male customers.