In the province of Sindh, Pakistan, it seems as if the violent and oppressive patriarchism that for centuries has run unchecked might suffer a serious setback. Started in 2008, a program involving the redistribution of 91,000 acres of fertile land has been in effect, under the jurisdiction ofthe Pakistani government. Thepeculiar and perhaps even revolutionary aspct of this program involves 80,000 acres of land that have been designated to go to women, the poor, and the homless, traditonally relegated to the lower rungs of Pakistani society. This initiative is radically altering the fabric of gender relations in a country with a well preserved history of misogyny, and it is all thanks to the President, Asif Ali Zardari, who in 2009 mandated that 21,000 acres of land be put to the use of the "weaker sex." And this has sparked a revolution in the home and in society at large. "I told my husband if he ever hits me (again), I'll pack up and go to my parents who live just round the corner, and he will lose the land I got," said Jannat Gul of Tando Bagho. Apparently this new initiative is working - Gul's husband has not hit her in 6 months.
In Pakistan, land has become a weapon of liberation, from social, personal, and societal conventions of a cultural climate that at best can be called suffocating. Faisal Ahmed Uqaili, the coordinator of the redistribution program, says the aim is to "empower the rural women of Sindh."
The latest statistics (accurate up to November of 2009), indicate that 17,400 acres of land have already been redistributed in 17 of the 23 districs of the Sindh province, and have gone to benefit more than 4,200 people, 70% of which are women. Each of these people received between 1.6 and 10 acres, and, in order to prevent men from appropriating the land, a 15 year minimum wait is required before the land can be sold and the beneficiaries can only be women.
"I paid off the grocer's loan, bought new clothes for myself and my grandchildren, and re-invested the rest into the land," says Zar Bibi, a 60-year-old widow, who made a profit of 45,000 rupees (525 U.S. dollars) off the first crop of rice she harvested from her new plot of land. Pakistan is slowly discovering that land may be the surest way to combat poverty, and also the scourge of gender inequality.
Women have been entitled to posses land for a long time, according to Pakistani law, but social norms have always dictated that women hand over their dowry and possessions to men. This reversal in custom is due not in small part to the Benazir Effect, which derives its name from the ex prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007, and who was a champion of women's rights. "This thrust for women's land ownership came from the political leadership and not from the bureaucracy," Haris Gazdar, a Karachi- based economist explains.
All the same, the old, ingrained ways of thinking still exist, and men have been speaking out against the redistribution and cultural paradigm shift. They protest in dissent and in, if not explicitly then unconciously, fear of a revolution that is sure to upset their centuries old grasp on the societal and economic power strucutre of their country.
Translated by Giovanni Zenati