Women's Feature Service



Pakistan - ‘We Want Change:’ Pakistan Women MP's Speak Out


By Pamela Philipose



Rubina Khalid, member of the Pakistan Senate, representing the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, wants to try and monetise women's contribution by bringing them into formal employment because as long as women are economically dependent on their husbands, fathers or brothers their status will not change. (Credit: WFS)


Delhi (Women’s Feature Service) - 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 times of the Soviet invasion of that country in the nineties to the so-called “war against terrorism” of today.


It is from this unlikely scenario that three feisty women members of parliament (MPs) - 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 Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and the Pakistan-based Jinnah Institute.


As is the case in India, family connections are an important factor in bringing women into the political space. As Senator Khalid 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 coalitional arrangement. I am now a member of the Senate, representing the PPP from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.”


Khalid is disturbed that the status of women in Pakistan is low, despite their rights being 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 get 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. Once they get financial independence, they will be better able to make their own decisions and the men in the family will then start listening to them,” observes Khalid.


Unlike Khalid, who joined politics only recently, Senator Farah Aaqil from Peshawar has been a politician since 2002. It was her husband who coaxed her into becoming a member of the provincial assembly of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, and since then she has worked extensively for women’s rights in her region. She later became a senator, thanks to reservations for women in parliament. Comments Aaqil wryly, “The only good thing that the former dictator, Pervez Musharraf, did was to introduce reservations for women in Parliament!”


Today, 17 seats out of a total of 104 seats in the Senate, or Upper House of Pakistan’s parliament, are reserved for women; while out of the 342 seats in the National Assembly, or the Lower House, 60 are reserved for women. Aaqil hopes that in time their presence 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.


Aaqil’s own experience bears this out. One of the first concerns she took up when she joined politics as a member of 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 terrible, horrible issue in the provincial assembly,” recalls Aaqil. The case involved a group of teachers who were sexually abusing succeeding batches of students for almost 30 years, without being brought to book. Once Aaqil took up the case, she came under fire from her male colleagues who questioned her right to raise such a socially abhorrent issue in the assembly. But her brave intervention paid off – the teachers got arrested, and there was a judicial inquiry into the issue.


Sooner or later women politicians like Aaqil, who want to change the status quo, are forced to confront religious fundamentalism and feudal mindsets. Bushra Gohar, a member of the National Assembly, was a women’s activist for nearly 19 years before she decided to join mainstream politics at the invitation of the Awami National Party, of which she is today the central vice-president. In fact, her first political gesture was to take on the fundamentalists, who had banned the playing of music in public places – a tragic proscription in a region like the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that has a very 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,” Gohar smiles.


Mainstream politics gave this MP the space to take more effectively the very issues that she had focused on as an activist, and today she is a very active member of the women’s caucus that the woman Speaker of the National Assembly, Fehmida Mirza set up to bring women parliamentarians together so that they can have a greater impact. Gohar 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 which have the lowest levels of education,” she observes.


In Pakistan, education has been recognised as a fundamental right, but it is a subject that falls within the purview of the provinces. Going by the existing data, change in educational patterns has been slow. In rural Pakistan, only 22 per cent of girls above the age of 10 have completed primary schools or high school. It is here that Gohar 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 that there is a long way to go. Curricula, for instance, need revision, especially since textbooks perpetuate a lot of gender biases and stereotypes.


Addressing fundamentalism is an even more formidable challenge, especially since fundamentalists use violence to impose their writ. Interestingly, it is the women parliamentarians who 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 Khalid, “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 Gohar. 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 want. Concludes Gohar, “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!”