Women senators from one of Pakistan’s most strife-torn and conservative regions are leading the cry for a new and gender-equal public sphere.

Once known as Pakistan’s North West Frontier region, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is one of the country’s poorest and most conservative provinces. Straddling Afghanistan to the west, this area has been a theatre of conflict right from the time of the Soviet invasion in the 1990s to the so-called “war against terrorism” of today.

It is from this unlikely scenario that three feisty women Members of Parliament — Rubina Khalid, Bushra Gohar and Farah Aaqil — have emerged and are bringing a new dynamic to politics, both at the local and national level. All three were part of a parliamentary delegation that visited India recently for the ‘Pakistan Parliamentary Dialogue’, hosted jointly by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry and the Pakistan-based Jinnah Institute.

As in India, family connections are an important factor in bringing women into the political space. As Rubina puts it, “I was born into politics. My father and brother were part of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the party of Benazir Bhutto, which currently rules Pakistan in a coalition arrangement. I am now a member of the Senate, representing the PPP from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.”

She is disturbed that the status of women in Pakistan is low even though their rights are protected under Articles 25, 27, 35 and 37 of the Constitution. “What upsets me most is that women’s contribution is not even considered. Yet, the reality is that women work unrelentingly hard lives in homes and fields — while their husbands enjoy themselves, hooked on some drug or the other!” she says. The political leader wants to try and monetise women’s contribution by bringing them into formal employment. “Many of them are extremely talented in the local crafts. I want to bring them into the mainstream,” she says.

The challenge, though, is to make the average woman more aware of her rights. “As long as women are economically dependent on their husbands, fathers or brothers — who remain the ‘authority figures’ in Pakistani society — their status will not change. With financial independence, they will be better able to make their own decisions and the men in the family will start listening to them.”

Unlike Rubina, who joined politics only recently, Farah Aaqil from Peshawar has been in politics since 2002. Her husband had coaxed her to become a member of the provincial assembly of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, and she has since worked extensively for women’s rights in her region. She later became a senator, thanks to reservations for women in parliament — “the only good thing that the former dictator Pervez Musharraf did,” she says wryly.

Today, 17 out of 104 seats in the Senate, or Upper House, and 60 out of 342 seats in the National Assembly, or Lower House, are reserved for women. Farah hopes their numbers will grow. “We have already been able to change the terms of political discourse. I think women politicians are more conscious about social issues. Because they are more grounded and generally less corrupt, they tend to be more effective,” she says.

Farah’s own experience bears this out. One of the first issues she took up after entering the provincial assembly of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa was child abuse in a local school. “It was the very first time for me — I was a housewife before that — but I took courage in both hands and, soon after taking oath, went on to talk about this horrible issue in the provincial assembly,” she recalls. The case involved a group of teachers who were sexually abusing succeeding batches of students for almost 30 years. When Farah brought up the case, she came under fire from male colleagues who questioned her right to raise such a socially abhorrent issue in the assembly. But her brave intervention paid off — the teachers were arrested, and there was a judicial inquiry into the case.

Sooner or later, women politicians such as Farah who question the status quo are forced to confront religious fundamentalism and feudal mindsets. Bushra Gohar, a National Assembly member, was a women’s activist for nearly 19 years before joining mainstream politics at the invitation of the Awami National Party, of which she is today the central vice-president. Her first political gesture was to take on the fundamentalists, who had banned music in public places — a tragic proscription in a region like Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which has a rich and ancient tradition of Hindko and Pashto folk music. “I decided to defy this ban by telling my party to welcome me into its fold with folk music. All the folk artistes of the region were invited and we had a very lovely musical evening,” Bushra smiles.

Today, she is an active member of the caucus of women parliamentarians that the National Assembly Speaker, Fehmida Mirza, has set up. Bushra believes that the two biggest hurdles before Pakistan today are illiteracy and fundamentalism. “If you think about it, the two issues are interlinked. You will find the highest levels of fundamentalism in precisely those places with the lowest levels of education,” she observes.

Education is a fundamental right in Pakistan, but its implementation rests with the provinces. In rural areas, only 22 per cent of girls above 10 have completed primary school or high school. It is here that Bushra hopes to make a difference, “What my party has done in our province is to focus completely on education — it has become one of our primary political planks.” But she admits there is a long way to go. Curriculum, for instance, needs revision, especially as textbooks perpetuate a lot of gender biases and stereotypes.

Addressing fundamentalism and the attendant violence is an even more formidable challenge. Interestingly, the women parliamentarians have shown more grit in facing up to them. In 2011, after the assassination of Punjab governor Salman Taseer, who was perceived to be liberal on the contentious issue of blasphemy, everybody was afraid to speak out and it was the women in the National Assembly who raised the issue.

The rising tide of violence hurts women the most. While Pakistan’s women parliamentarians have successfully passed a law against acid throwing and sexual harassment, the law against domestic violence has come up against objections from the maulvis. Says Rubina, “The maulvis always object to anything progressive. But we are trying to reason with them and, Inshallah, we will get that Bill passed.”

It is a rare male politician who would espouse such an issue. “Male politicians tend to go with the status quo. We, on the other hand, try to make the most of the limited spaces allowed to us,” adds Bushra. In her region, for instance, when fundamentalist politicians held a jirga (consultative assembly), she and her women colleagues decided to hold a women’s jirga to articulate what they wanted. “In this way, we give confidence to women who believe they cannot speak. Now many women and young people are considering getting into politics, and that bodes well for the future!”

© Women’s Feature Service

(This article was published on October 11, 2012)
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