Celebrating Women Parliamentarians

by Ismail Khan

If you have followed the media on women’s parliamentarians, you may conclude that they have little to do except badmouthing each other by passing the most inappropriate remarks, either in talk shows or in the assemblies. But you should not follow only the media. Instead, you should look at the statistics.

One of Pakistan’s most focused non-profit organisations, the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT), has been assessing the performance of parliamentarians over the years. According to its recently released summary, women parliamentarians emerge as the most active legislators in terms of moving private member bills. Out of a total of 26 single-member bills in the National Assembly, 22 were moved by women parliamentarians. Above all, the movers of the bills come from all the major parties of the country.

The moving of bills is not the only reason women parliamentarians need to be complimented. It was just recently that the Senate also passed a bill that penalises sexual harassment at the workplace. Moreover, earlier, a bill aiming to curb domestic violence was introduced in the National Assembly; the bill, however, could not see the light of day as debate on it surpassed the mandated duration for any debate on a legislative piece — something that should in no way depreciate the performance of women parliamentarians.

Like every other institution, and every other country, Pakistan’s parliament is predominantly male, where women have had trouble finding space. Additionally, they have to face criticism against their presence in parliament in the first place. Generically speaking, feminist literature has found women legislators to be ‘male surrogates’ who become ‘socialised’ in these male-dominant institutions. Thus, they have to defend the party line whether they want it or not; the reservations on and yet approval of the Nizam-e-Adl Ordinance, which provided space to the Taliban in Swat, by some women parliamentarians from the ruling alliance serves as an example. Moreover, specifically with regard to women politicians in South Asia, it is often lamented how their well-connected background makes them disconnected from the ‘real’ issues of the masses. This is corroborated by the fact that most women sit in parliament only because they are relatives of prominent male politicians. Thus, whenever women get to parliament, exclusive stories of their background get published in the newspapers.

While that is not wrong altogether, the point is that there is often an over-expectation from women to resolve the real issues. There is no denying that, like all parliamentarians, women too are expected to work on many important issues; in fact, they have moved more private member bills in parliament than their male counterparts. However, the point is, should they all be viewed through such a discriminating mind frame? And should it be used only against them?

Instead, even if there were any criteria, they should include their role in working on women’s issues. This does not mean that only they should be expected to resolve women’s issues — something commonly perceived. However, their own gender identity and the non-seriousness of the male members makes them serve this cause much better. After all, those members who criticised both the harassment bill and the domestic violence bill in the Senate were male legislators. They might have come from a religious group but their idea of purity was highly masculine — they did not even give voice to their party’s women colleagues. Earlier too, when the Women’s Protection Bill was tabled during Musharraf’s time, male members from the then-ruling party, i.e. the Pakistan Muslim League, had problems. Thus, it is this reality of men calling the shots on women’s issues that can only, and effectively, be addressed by the presence of women.

Finally, the record for the past year may show how women parliamentarians are largely united on women’s issues. This comes despite the observation that women’s issues are not necessarily defended by women themselves due to deep divisions among them along ethnic, class, religious and even scale of religion lines. For instance, exactly one year ago, women activists rallied together with the girl students of a madrassa for the restoration of the chief justice; within two to three weeks of his restoration, the women activists were alone on the streets against the flogging of a 12-year old girl in Swat.

However, in the midst of these divisions, they are largely united on women’s issues. That they were able to table and pass pro-women bills with a consensus not only shows their concern, but how parliament is an effective way of addressing social ills.

That said, there are still challenges ahead for female parliamentarians such as obscurantism that is rife in the country. Talibanisation, at its very core, is aimed against women and can be present as much in the urban areas of Pakistan as in the tribal areas. The killing of Zille Huma, a provincial minister of Punjab, at the hands of a fanatic in 2007 in Gujranwala serves as an example. Likewise, an institutional challenge such as the absence of a minister in the Ministry of Women’s Development is another example that needs to be tackled jointly. Let us hope that further change will be brought on the next International Women’s Day!

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