KARACHI: “Was Fatima Jinnah acceptable to the politicians here? Was Nusrat Bhutto acceptable? Even Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was unacceptable for setting up a women’s wing within his party,” said Deputy Speaker Sindh Assembly Syeda Shehla Raza during a programme organised by Strengthening Parti­cipatory Organisation (SPO) on Thursday.

SPO started a research study with the support of the Australian government to analyse the attitudes of male legislators and whether they provide space to women legislators to function effectively. The study also entailed an analysis of men’s attitude towards pro-women legislation passed in the provincial assemblies. The programme on Thursday included sharing of some key findings of the research report besides hearing what the women legislators had to say about their experience in the assemblies.

“Here even Benazir Bhutto was criticised by her own uncle for wearing lipstick. But BB is one great example of strength of a woman, though she is acknowledged for this after her death by the men. This is our society,” Ms Raza pointed out.

Women lawmakers recall experiences in politics

“What women can do in such a society is to stop crying and behaving like victims. The men may behave the way they do. You don’t have to accept their behaviour. Take a stand,” she said.

“And also take yourself seriously,” she advised. “Because politics doesn’t mean media activity or being a chief guest at events. It means that you are given a chance to do some good. Unite with other women, don’t point fingers at each other, and look society directly in the eye,” she said.

Rahila Hameed Khan Durrani, Speaker Balochistan Assembly, shared some attitudes she had had to face in the assembly. “More than religion, culture becomes a hurdle for a woman who stands tall in society,” she said. “I receive a lot of respect from men. They even stand up for you. But when dealing with them on equal footing, you have to fight for your rights every step of the way,” she said.

“There is this general impression that women get seats in the assembly as dole. For schemes you get funding but not the freedom to spend it according to your plan. The men want your funding and if you put your foot down they pressure you through the party,” she said. “When this happened with me, I was asked to return my portfolio. At the time no woman stood up for me. I didn’t have the support of my sisters. So I left my party, but I did it with a strong message: ‘She fights’,” she shared. “And then I found out that out of respect for you even your opponents become your allies,” she added.

Amina Sardar, member Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly, said that women in the KP Assembly are not included in the budget process. “But budget-making comes naturally to women,” she said.

Najma Afzal, member Punjab Assembly, said that she was very well aware that she was living in a male-dominated society. “But as the tree of democracy grows so do our hopes. Still, even though we have several women ministers in the Punjab we get no funding and no office for the women caucus,” she shared.

Member Sindh Assembly Mehtab Akbar Rashdi said that one should note the attitudes of males. “See how he behaves outside and inside his home. And the attitude they have, they bring from home, which is not likely to change,” she shared her observation.

Dictators & democrats

“There were 10 per cent seats reserved for women in the assemblies in the 1973 elections. Then a dictator increased the number to 33pc followed by a decrease down to 23pc by a democratic government,” she reminded.

“Then came the graduation requirement, a condition to be elected. That’s when the men who didn’t have a BA degree pushed their wives, daughters and daughters-in-law to get into politics because they wanted to save their seats until they went back to college,” she added.

“So when a man wants he may become progressive and when he wants he may become conservative to suit his needs. Tell me, why do the Sharif women step up? It is usually when their men have been disqualified from running in elections. Why can’t they stand up together, side by side like Nusrat Bhutto stood tall with her man?” she asked, while acknowledging the MQM for supporting their women in politics. “Still, I don’t see women MQM ministers though there are senators,” she said. “So there are contradictions within contradictions,” she pointed out.

“There are also people who inherit leadership like Maryam Nawaz and that kid in the PPP. But they need to prove themselves like Rahul Gandhi who went through the grind to prove his mettle. Because there are no born leaders,” she said.

“Therefore when you get there, prove yourselves. Use your brains. In the assemblies the competition is of competence not of sitting pretty,” she advised her fellow female legislators.

Earlier, Sadiqa Salahuddin, member, board of directors, SPO, said that Sindh had many laws to safeguard the rights of the people. But it is naive to think that after a law was passed everyone would automatically know about it. “It is not so simple. You need to spread awareness about the laws, for which there needs to be a budget. But the government outreach here is weak,” she explained. “Even the enforcers of the law don’t know about them, making the laws useless. So there is also a need to look into how they are taken to the people and how they are implemented,” she said.

While sharing some key findings of their study, researcher Marvi Sirmed thanked the parliamentarians for cooperating with them in their research and filling the questionnaires.

Shazia Shaheen, head of programme; SPO, Nuzhat Shirin, chairperson Sindh Commission on the Status of Women; Neelam Turo, chairperson, KP Comm­ission on the Status of Women and Ghulam Mustafa Baloch, regional head SPO Hyderabad, also spoke.

Published in Dawn, December 22nd, 2017

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