The myth of female representation in Pakistani politics

Benazir Bhutto

Benazir Bhutto

Last week, I got the opportunity to hear a short lunch-time talk by former US Congresswoman Sue Kelly. A member of the Republican Party, which I am not generally a fan of, she was remarkably impressive in her scathing criticism of her own party and of the other lot, the Democrats. Her knowledge of the subject matter was very impressive and the anecdotes she shared from both her campaign as well as tenure in the House of Representatives made for a highly inspirational talk. A friend described her, very aptly, as a firecracker.

The session was organized by Women in Public Policy, a student group at The University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, so naturally when the floor was opened for questions from the audience, the conversation turned to women in the legislature.

It was a frank, candid conversation where everyone agreed – including the male participants, one of whom was Kelly’s co-speaker for the talk – that although a lot more women were now in the US legislature, Washington was a long way from being considerate and accepting of women legislators. Kelly shared an anecdote of when, during her first term in office in the ‘90s, she asked to be assigned to the commerce committee of the Congress, the then chairman said “Like hell will I ever allow a woman to be on my committee.”

In her concluding remarks on the discussion, Kelly said something that particularly stuck with me. She said: “The glass ceiling has been broken [with Nancy Pelosi becoming the minority leader in the house]. The challenge now is how to keep your head above it.”

As I gathered my belongings, I was reminded of a conversation about Pakistani politics I had had with an American female classmate just when we were starting our term. After a brief conversation about our long-term goals of running for office, she told me that she was fascinated by the fact that Pakistan has had a female head of state and that too not once but twice. She almost keeled over when I told her that we have also had a female speaker of the lower house of parliament (Fehmida Mirza) and a female foreign minister (Hina Rabbani Khar), leaving out former central bank governor Shamshad Akhtar and ambassadors Sherry Rehman and Maliha Lodhi who did not serve in elected office. My classmate assumed that somehow this recognition for women politicians in Pakistan encouraged me to harbor the dream of being a member of parliament someday, and wistfully commented how the US was yet to elect a female head of state and how much of a pipedream that seemed to be sometimes.

I wanted to tell her then as I wanted to tell her after Kelly’s talk: don’t be wistful, because what you have is sustainable. What we have, on the other hand, is something of a charade.

The female head of state we talk of, Benazir Bhutto, was only able to become the prime minister because she was her father’s daughter. The reason she was nominated for prime ministership was because she was the chairperson of a national party that swept the elections, a party also inherited from her father.

To give credit where it’s due, what makes Benazir an iconic Pakistani female politician is the admirable fact that she campaigned, not only for herself but for her party. Although her ascent was in part because of the man her name and thus identity was associated with (her father), she is the only woman politician in post-1980s’ theocratic Pakistan to have addressed massive rallies where men and women listened with rapt attention.

That is more than can be said of Mirza and Khar, who both have influential men in the family who practically campaigned on their behalf. In fact, Khar rose to prominence in 2002 when she was a proxy candidate for her father’s seat which he was unable to contest for failure of possessing a bachelor’s degree which had become a requirement for running for office that year.

The one big difference between the US and Pakistan when it comes to women’s role in politics is not that women have had a more successful run in Pakistan than in the US, rather it is that the trend of increased female representation in US politics is of a much more sustainable nature than that in Pakistan.

Pakistani women parliamentarians have almost always run second-fiddle to men. In the most recent election (May 2013), an overwhelming majority of election rallies were addressed strictly by men. In none of the mainstream political parties is a woman in charge of anything remotely important, and a large majority of the women who are now members of Pakistan’s National Assembly have made it there on the reserved seats for women, not the competitive ones that are open for contest among genders. Unfortunately, that is also true for some of the most promising women leaders and former parliamentarians like Sherry Rehman and Bushra Gohar whose election rallies would be something to attend.

In the US, unlike in Pakistan, women politicians are no longer thinking about winning a seat in the parliament on equal terms. Their energies are now focused on working to build on the gains made by women politicians who beat the competition to make it in. In Pakistan, we have a long way to go until a woman can be elected on to a non-reserved seat or without a family lineage of politically influential men. And having a quota of reserved seats isn’t doing us any favors.

Photo credit: Reuters


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