Women in male politics — the ‘B' team -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

Women in male politics — the ‘B’ team

One can almost hear the loquacious minister of railways, Sheikh Rashid, spin the impending presidential elections as one that will be ‘fair’ because reportedly, the new presidential-nominee is going to be of the ‘fairer’ sex.

There is speculation that the latest player, in the circus that has become Pakistani politics, is Sehba Musharraf. The proposition that the First ‘Mrs’ (as wives are commonly referred to in military social life), could serve as a proxy for her husband, fits in neatly with the traditional role of women in our male-dominated politics.

Similarly, there is every possibility of the re-surfacing of Kulsoom Nawaz to stand-in for the recently expelled Nawaz Sharif, for the second time after he was deposed in 1999. These surrogate leaders represent the role of women in contemporary politics, where they increasingly seem to be playing as the ‘B’ team for male political leaders.

The reason that these women retreat back into the chador and chardewari after playing their very public roles, is that male defined patriarchal politics simply cannot accommodate women’s leadership. This is partially to do with traditional male attitudes towards women in public office. It is also about the inability of women to emerge out of their autonomous, but limited roles in ‘women’s wings’ and become mainstream competing politicians. In both cases, the beneficiaries are male leaders, who reap political capital from lower cadre and women’s activism in their parties.

In fact, Sheikh Rashid’s ‘enlightened and progressive’ views on the question of women’s leadership, is a good example of male attitude towards women in politics. In 1994, his use of abusive language used for then Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, sparked off organized protests by women activists. The women’s wing of the ruling PPP and some third parties also joined in these protests across the political spectrum. Disappointingly, despite the revelation of the misogynistic mind-set of male politicians such as Rashid, the women’s wing of the PML-N did not offer comment, apology or protest on his targeted attack against women in public office.

Yet, it was the women’s wing of the PML-N that rallied against the conviction of Rashid’s arrest in 1995 and many were arrested themselves in the course of their protest. They even went on a hunger strike because Rashid was not provided an air cooler in jail. Leader, Nawaz Sharif, lauded the women of his party by equating the role of women in the Tehriq-e-Nijat (anti-government agitation) as ‘reminiscent of the Pakistan movement’. Never truer words spoken — the dependency on women’s sacrifices in male-defined nationalist movements is a well-documented process.

The theme of struggling for causes determined and symbolized by male leaders also pits women against each other due to male drawn party lines. This is unfortunate when we consider the wide range of common issues on the woman-question that call for alignment across and above party divisions.

The PPP has also been historically prone to this ideological bind, whereby the party may have to accept the leadership of a woman that does not necessarily ‘feminise’ the party’s politics. One of their women’s wings regular ‘activities’ is to celebrate the birthday of the late founder of the party, ZulfiKar Bhutto, and ceremoniously cut a cake. Excessive police force was commonly used against the opposition’s women’s wing during Benazir’s tenure.

Male religious leaders spent the 90s distressed over the ‘legitimacy’ of a woman’s rule and organized concerted and regular media attacks on this issue. The JI’s Qazi Hussein expressed his despondency at the unfortunate rule of pro-western women’s rule in three muslim countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Turkey at the time. Machiavellian politics justified Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s role as chairman of the National Assembly’s Committee on Foreign Affairs in 1995. He maintained that the then prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, did not ‘take part effectively in the committee’ and so that absolved him of the impurity of her rule. In 2002, as circumstances compelled these leaders, they readily conceded the leadership to women in their parties, however symbolic.

Interestingly, the JI’s women’s wing has always deferred to higher male defined causes of religion and been accepting of its ‘B’ status and unapologetic for it. At the same time, they have historically taken very informed, radical positions on women’s issues, particularly sexual oppression of women by men and attribute this as the obstacle to women’s independence. Unfortunately, when they were made proxies, they were unable to adhere to this ideological position, evident in their silence on the Mukhtaran Mai case. This shows the adaptability of the Jamaat’s women’s wing and how they’ve mastered the game of political accommodation. So during General Ziaul Haq’s Islamisation, they aligned themselves with the state’s anti-women causes, such as supporting the Hudood Ordinances and rallying against co-education. However, under General Musharraf’s regime of ‘moderation’, as part of the government, they benefit off as well as support the state’s ‘protective’ approach towards women and mould their political rhetoric accordingly. Hence, their agenda has not become any less regressive, yet they have learned the art of fitting in with a state that is likely to always remain patriarchal.

While on the conservatives, 1995 also saw the emergence of Imran Khan in the political arena. His initial views on women’s issues are superficial, at best. In one of his earliest columns, he holds the women’s liberation movement responsible for “every issue from fundamentalism to slogans like power to women, AIDS, drugs, human rights etc [which] are imported and highlighted disproportionately…” (The Nation, 15/12/95). A statement by him at a seminar, carried by the same paper, compares the “one million rape cases every year [in America] while not a single rape case [is] reported in the tribal areas [in Pakistan]’ (The Nation 17/9/95). That tribal culture dictates its own punishment for the rapist and the victim, is not part of his understanding of why cases would not be reported.

However, one cannot accuse Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf of using women as proxies — since women are invisible in this party altogether.

The reason the above sounds familiar with reference to nearly all male leaders, however liberal or evolved they may claim to have grown, is two-fold. On the one hand, lack of consistent democratic processes results in artificial induction into office, whereby women either inherit their leadership or become proxies. Hence, their politics remains male-defined and they are expected to resign as soon as the seat is warmed for their masters. On the other hand, even if women party activists are not used as proxies then they are used as ‘covers’ or ‘shields’.

For example, the recent operation against the occupiers of the Lal Masjid reportedly resulted in the use of the women activists as shields for the male leaders when the state took military action against them. This is reminiscent of the use of Quran-holding women activists acting as shields and leading the MQM resistance against army action in the 80s.

The (predominantly non-voting) chattering classes complain about the lack of democracy in our political parties. Instead, all of us should be holding these parties accountable to specific principles beyond those of elections within. These would include a pledge regarding affirmative action that would ensure representative participation in the policy-making within their parties. Women politicians need to assert their rightful places in the ‘A’ not the ‘B’ teams of these parties, for if anyone understands that rights are never awarded but have to be fought for, it is the women of this country.

With this historical record on women’s political roles, it would be the most twisted irony if we should end up with a woman President and Prime Minister by the end of this year. The question remains, would Chief Minister Sindh, Arbab Rahim, still consider women’s rule (in this instance from its highest office) as ‘vicious’?

The writer is a sociologist based in Karachi. She has a background in women’s studies and has authored and edited several books on women’s issues Email: afiyazia@yahoo.com
Source: The News
Date:9/18/2007