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Lean In in Pakistan

Written by Anees Jillani  •  May 2013 PDF Print E-mail

The American media is in the habit of generating interesting debates. A few months back, it was Yale Law professor Amy Chua’s book titled `Tiger Mom’ where she defended her strict methods of parenting. This controversy had hardly died down that now Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg, has generated an intense discussion by arguing in her book `Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead’ that “if more women lean in, (the women) can change the power structure of (their) world and expand opportunities.” The 43-year-old COO has followed the book with a campaign, LeanIn.org, a nonprofit foundation. Some now equate her crusade with the most ambitious mission to reboot feminism and reframe discussions of gender since the launch of Ms. magazine in 1971.

Sandberg’s central argument is that stereotypes hold women back, which she calls Catch-22 of women’s success-likability penalty. She says, “As women get more powerful, they get less likable. I see women holding themselves back because of this.” She is of the view that women face a double standard: if they turn down an assignment, they are seen as difficult, if they ask for a promotion, they are seen as too aggressive.

Sandberg has also triggered the eternal question of nature versus nurture since the time women started to work. She says that there are no doubt biological differences between males and females but, according to her, the desire for leadership, winning or excelling, is not hardwired biology. She argues that we socialize “our daughters to nurture and our boys to lead. We call our daughters bossy and we never call our sons bossy.”

America, despite being the most advanced and powerful country in the West, is also one of the most conservative. As a result, there are still few female executives in organizations and on the company Boards.

But that is America. When we compare it with our country and our neighbors, the situation in the West stands in stark contrast. Women here are constitutionally allowed to vote; they are given special seats in our assemblies thanks to the reforms generated by General Musharraf; they have an exclusive bank; a few token female police stations and certain other schemes launched from time to time. Benazir Bhutto in 1988 became the first woman PM in any Muslim country. Many of our neighboring countries lack all of these. Despite this, with the exception of Afghanistan, the women in the whole of South Asia are better off than in Pakistan.

No country, even those like Saudi Arabia, Iran and North Korea, can fight globalization. Women, particularly the youngsters who constitute the majority in all South Asian countries, discover daily how their counterparts in the rest of the world are advancing and progressing. The clock of progress cannot be held back. Resultantly, a section of our populace continues to advance. However, another big chunk is not just held back but perhaps put in the reverse gear on religious and social grounds. My mother used to ride a bicycle in the fifties during her college days in a small town in the Punjab but it is unthinkable for my daughters to do so even in Pakistan’s capital.

In such a situation where women cannot even vote and think about driving (as in the tribal areas and parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), the American debate generated by Sandberg about the invisible barrier in women’s minds about aspiring to senior positions appear to be misplaced. 


Anees Jillani is an advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan and a member of the Washington, DC Bar. He has been writing for various publications for more than 20 years and has authored several books.

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