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Sexism at the sovereign

Updated Jun 09, 2016 10:46am

ISLAMABAD: Sexism may be as institutionalised in Pakistani politics as it is in our society, but insulting behaviour towards women was not on display so frequently in parliaments of the past.

Whether parliamentarians are aware of the implications their remarks carry or not, sexist comments are all too common, even on the floor of the house. However, Khawaja Asif’s remarks about Shireen Mazari on Wednesday went beyond sexism; they were downright insulting.

“The one who started it all was Sheikh Rashid Ahmed,” recalls veteran journalist Nusrat Javeed, who has covered the National Assembly for well-over two decades.


Insulting behaviour towards women becoming all too common; women lawmakers look to parliamentary caucus for support across party lines


He recalled two incidents from the first PPP government. “Benazir Bhutto was wearing a Pakistani green shirt and white shalwar. When she walked in, he quipped ‘You look like a veritable parrot’, which did not go down well with Ms Bhutto at all and caused a ruckus in the house.”

But the real kicker came the day Ms Bhutto wore a yellow suit to the house. “She was on her way out just as Sheikh Rashid rose in his seat, and he protested her exit during his speech by calling her a name which is considered very derogatory on the streets of Rawalpindi.”

“The governor of Punjab was supposed to meet with Ms Bhutto later that day and legend has it that when she went to see him, her eyes were red. That was the same night Sheikh Rashid was booked in a terrorism case for possessing illegal weapons. The rest, as they say, is history.”

For his part, Khawaja Mohammad Asif also has some history of making disagreeable and insulting comments towards women members in the house. Even when his party was in opposition from 2002 to 2007, Mr Asif did not spare the women of the treasury benches. At one time, it was Begum Mehnaz Rafi of the PML-Q, who was on the receiving end.

Khawaja Asif called Ms Rafi, who walked with a limp, a ‘penguin’. Although he was reprimanded by women parliamentarians across the board, it did not seem to make any difference to the no-filter politician from Sialkot.

Read: PTI leaders seek public apology from Asif

Another incident took place in April 2015, when women from both sides of the aisle walked out to protest the unfair distribution of development funds.

Then too, Khawaja Asif had stirred things up when he said that women who were elected on reserved seats had no constituency except for the directly-elected MNAs from their area.

“It is not appropriate to demand equal treatment,” he told his women colleagues then, insisting that they were given funds due to parliamentary convention, not because the Constitution said so.

But he is not the only one in his party who has made unsavoury remarks about women lawmakers.

In January 2015, Abid Sher Ali invoked the ire of PPP’s Shazia Marri when, instead of answering her question, he instead chose to comment on her appearance.

In June 2015, PML-N MNA Talal Chaudhry invoked the opposition’s ire when he called Ms Mazari “aunty”. At the time, Speaker Ayaz Sadiq had reprimanded the offending lawmaker and immediately asked for the remarks to be expunged.

Earlier this year, around the time that the assembly was debating the formation of Pakistan Airways, State Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Sheikh Aftab made a lewd remark with reference to Ms Mazari.

The PTI whip was badgering the minister to explain, during Question Hour, what international standards of security were being observed at the Islamabad airport. “In airports abroad, they also strip-search you. Is that the international standard she wants,” he responded, to peals of approving laughter from the treasury benches.

Women’s caucus

Although the women’s parliamentary caucus is supposed to take up issues like this, many women lawmakers Dawn spoke to did not sound optimistic.

Dr Nafisa Shah lamented the lack of interest shown by the women’s parliamentary caucus in addressing such sexist behaviour in the house.

“The caucus did not take a stand on the issue of development funds, which are guaranteed to all members. Women have been consistently denied these,” she told Dawn.

Referring to how the speaker of the UK House of Commons had recently ejected a man who refused to apologise for calling the prime minister names, she questioned why Mr Asif was allowed to remain in the house.

She also said that if they were not satisfied with the response, “colleagues are considering withdrawing from the caucus”. However, she maintained that the PML-N women should stand with them on this issue. “When the PPP was in power, we women stood together. We didn’t care for who was in what party,” she concluded.

PTI’s Munazza Hassan told Dawn that when she and Dr Shah went over to speak to MNA Shaista Pervaiz – who heads the women’s caucus – Marvi Memon, who was sitting nearby had interjected to say that if her voice was compared to a man’s, she would take it as a compliment.

“I told her that may be her opinion, but I am a woman and do not need to pride myself on manliness,” she said.


When pressed to recall past incidents of such blatant sexism on the floor of house, Nusrat Javeed narrated another story from the days of Ayub Khan.

“Begum Zahid Khaleequzaman was minister for railways. While answering a question in the house, she had said ‘I have so much work that I have one foot in Karachi and the other in Rawalpindi’. At this, someone from the backbenches had shouted ‘The people of Rahim Yar Khan must be enjoying themselves’. What happened next, I do not recall,” Mr Javeed concluded.

Published in Dawn, June 9th, 2016