Words tell stories but numbers tell better ones.
One such story, the story of Pakistani women comes from the discoveries made by one recent survey on women in politics in South Asia and it is not a tale of happily ever after.
According to findings of the survey, which was conducted by the Center for Social Research and United Nations Women, a majority of Pakistanis (55 per cent) think that women so lack education and political skills that even if they are elected to political office, a man (husband or father) should be appointed as a proxy in their place.
Survey Responses to Attitudinal Statements related to VAWIP
If this general disdain in women’s ability to handle the responsibility of political office was not enough, a whopping 78 per cent of Pakistanis think that women should attend to their domestic responsibilities prior to doing any sort of political work at all. This portion of the statistical story told by the survey can be summarised in just a few words; cook clean and vote for men.
In reality, it’s not that Pakistani women (or Nepalese or Indian women) who were also surveyed have a lot of opportunities to become politically active. However, if they do get up the guts to enter politics, the results of the survey further showed that they have almost no chance of survival within it.
Not only do Pakistani women face more political violence than they did five years ago, a large number report harassment, intimidation and threats based on their gender.
Survey responses to various types of VAWIP (in percentage)
In the 2013 elections, while the turnout of women voters increased and rose to 40 per cent, the percentage of women competing for political office fell from 12 per cent to a little over 3 per cent.
But while this story of retreating women, who cook and clean and vote for men in elections is one portion of the saga of pushing women back into the private sphere; a more contradictory one is also told in the statistics. When asked, 93 per cent of survey respondents in Pakistan believe that women should have the right to participate in electoral politics.
In addition, 80 per cent of respondents believe that a “supportive husband” is crucial for women entering politics. So while the right of women to participate is believed to be real and the necessity of a supportive spouse recognised; nobody seems interested in its exercise or the provision of such supportive husbands.
A translation of these contradictory beliefs is simply that the right to participate in politics is a right only in theory and subject entirely to the whims of the man whose rights over women trump her rights over herself.
The confusion is not a surprising one. Indeed, politics in Pakistan and in South Asia in general is a deadly arena; where the children of ordinary folk, male or female, possess few chances of making a mark.
Add to this, current climates of religious zealotry, and the public dissections of patriotism and you have a situation where aversion from the smut and sleaze is a normal reaction. But disgust at the dirty business of politics can become, in a few easy steps, part of an even deadlier prescription; one that preaches that women should be “protected” from it because of their delicate nature.
The poison in this prescription is simply that it ignores the fact that women are already present in the public sphere, as teachers and doctors, labourers and professors, students and journalists and scores of other ways. Permitting a lack of political representation and insisting that only men can represent the concerns of half the population in the public realm is hence denying a reality that already exists and condemning half the population to political invisibility.
It is saying to every girl in Pakistan, that her priorities should be to cook, to clean and to vote for men.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney and human rights activist. She is a columnist for DAWN Pakistan and a regular contributor for Al Jazeera America, Dissent, Guernica and many other publications.
She is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon Press 2015). She tweets @rafiazakaria
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