By Senator Sehar Kamran (TI)
August 14, 2017
“The law must be gender-blind.
Democracy cannot work if women are subjugated, uneducated and unable to be independent.
–Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto, in ‘Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West’.
In the aftermath of the recent disqualification of Pakistan’s Premiere, political responses in the country have once more stooped to boorish demagoguery and mud-slinging. Embarrassing as these ignoble displays have been from such respected offices, the phenomenon is far from novel, and is enjoying its traditional magnitude of screen-time and very public analytic dissection of each new development. What is unfortunate however, is the content of the smear campaigns this time around, which is focused on character assassination through suggestions of immorality, and an escalation that is increasingly focused on ‘honour’ and women in the political arena. This situation is giving rise to emotive conversations around gender roles, and the place of women in politics.
A problem with this phenomenon, however, is that complicated conversations on this subject are difficult enough to hold in an open and candid manner on a regular day. They become even more so in such dramatic contexts that tend to polarise the audience and reduce arguments to over-simplified statements.
In a society that has an unforgiving attitude towards women to begin with, rooted in longstanding conservative practices and stereotyped gender roles, women in Pakistani politics are perpetually faced with a double-edged sword. Allegations and smear campaigns become ‘easy’ political tools, and coupled with the hypocritical attitudes in society, it becomes exceptionally easy to counter political challengers by making defamatory claims, as the burden of proof is placed with the victim instead of the accuser. The threat of defamation is then used for outright blackmail, as inefficient and ineffective defamation laws in the country do not discourage false accusers, as benefits continue to outweigh the risks.
For women, this is further complicated by the fact that they are seen as little more than extensions of male politicians, to be used as deemed suitable by the Party, irrespective of individual caliber or performance. If they do gain a permanent political position, or become an office-bearer of a Party, a smear campaign is launched against them, as it is considered a vulnerability of the Party. They are buried under generally baseless allegations of nepotism, claiming the use of ‘personal connections’ to elevate their position in the party.
Historically, Pakistan has produced a number of great women leaders and role models. The most prominent among them is the mother of the nation, Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah – a dental surgeon, biographer, stateswoman, and an ideal to which Pakistani women aspire. There is also the first (twice-elected) female Prime Minister of the country, and my personal hero and mentor, Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto (SMBB), who is an inspiration to women not only in Pakistan but across the globe. But in praising the tenacity, perseverance and leadership of these women, it is often forgotten that they had to make incredible sacrifices, and face daunting challenges to achieve accomplishments that come far easier to men in the country in general.
When women have to work ten times harder to attain the same level of success as their male peers, it discourages them from taking initiative. Pakistani women have unbounded potential, but it is being wasted Within the political arena, a hostile environment, lack of opportunity and nepotism are amongst the greatest challenges preventing great female leadership from coming to the forefront. The women already in the arena are often not given leadership roles proportionate to their abilities, creating further disenfranchisement.
As our great Founder, Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah said so clairvoyantly, “No nation can rise to the height of glory unless your women are side by side with you. ” That is perhaps the most apt description of the role of women in politics. Women in Pakistan form approximately 50% of the population.
However, as a result of underrepresentation in the political and legislative arenas, not only are their own issues sidelined and ignored, but their approach to conflict resolution and diplomacy is simply not integrated in the national and international arenas.
Legislative and oversight roles provide female parliamentarians with an important platform to influence social change and contribute to peace, security and development. Better representation in decision-making processes, especially in institutions like Parliamentary Assemblies and other such legislative bodies is also important, as National Parliaments are vital symbols of, and provide critical forums for, leadership and safeguarding of the rule of law and human rights.
As a consequence of the nonchalant attitude in institutions there exists a serious lack of trust between women and the institutions. As a result, even policy makers within the Parliament are not immune to harassment.Since no individual is ever made to face repercussions for their actions, especially if they are in a position of influence, such as an office bearer or in a top party position, it is hard for the victims to come forward.
The inequality bias can best be reversed through effective legislation to empower women, and by adopting practical measures for the implementation of such mechanisms.
Some reforms that may help encourage greater participation by women in the political arena, to once again produce great female leaders like SMBB, include:
- Encouragement of female workers in
Political parties by leadership;
- Better selection on merit;
- Female office bearers;
- Better leadership roles in the party;
- Lending support to organizations that are working to advance women rights,
- Political and economic empowerment; and
- Transformative justice.
Secondly, women must be granted greater access to quality education at all levels, as education is undoubtedly the surest path to women empowerment, and our collective progress. Female role models should be included in the syllabus to institutionalise the role and importance of women as it will lead to a generational progress and awareness which will help in breaking down the stereotypical gender roles.
The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) needs to penalise those in the NA/Senate who have been involved in initiating violence or campaign of character assassination against women.
A strict action should be taken against those who publically pass defamatory comments against women in public gatherings/processions.
The Pakistan Peoples’ Party, since its creation, has been one of the few entities to provide a dignified, secure and respectful platform to women to raise their voice on issues of social and economic importance, both nationally and internationally. The PPP has truly worked for empowering women, under the leadership of Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto, through practical steps like the induction of women in higher judiciary (for the first time in the history of Pakistan), the establishment of a Women Bank and the establishment of a separate Ministry for Women Affairs. She also created a political space for women for the first time, which women in other political parties are still banking upon today. Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto is a beacon of hope and the path for young girls across the country, as they say; and if one Party can do it, I firmly believe so can we all.
Equality of opportunity is not an option or a choice any more, but a belief in, and a commitment to the betterment of future generations. For now, the political system helping reinforce the gender status quo, but that does not mean change is impossible, or even inevitable. However, unless public awareness about reversing stereotypical gender roles is not actively propagated and immediately put into practice, especially by those in power, character assassination of women to discourage their participation in Pakistani politics will not stop. Just as the Speaker/Chairman of National Assembly and Senate must take steps to penalise members who name-call on the floor of the house, society as a whole must also unanimously condemn the active slander of women they disagree with.
We must increase the role of women in reparative justice and cooperate at all levels to see that justice is served and discrimination in all its forms is eradicated. Implementation of laws must be ensure in both letter and spirit. It is time that the political parties in the country acknowledge that gender equality is central to sustainable progress. Change will not come to us on a silver platter without effort on our own part.
Same version of the article appeared in The Nation