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Women’s visibility

December 16, 2018

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The writer is the author of Before She Sleeps.
The writer is the author of Before She Sleeps.

IN the first 100 days of Imran Khan’s government, analysts have pointed out where the government has triumphed, where it has stumbled, and where it needs to hold the course. Their focus has largely been on security, the economy and foreign relations, with a bit of development and education thrown in. But one area that everyone has ignored is the fact that this government has rendered women largely invisible in areas of governance, policy- and decision-making, and representation.

Sometimes pictures speak louder than words: the stream of official photographs and videos released by the government throughout the weeks illustrates that committees, panels, delegations, talks and high-level meetings are all filled with men. Perhaps one woman is sitting at the table; perhaps two or three aides or assistants are hovering in the background. There is a dearth of women in both the federal and provincial cabinets. The overwhelming picture is that men make the decisions, women stay in the background. It represents a giant step backwards.

Our nation is in the doldrums when it comes to women’s equality; it ranks bottom on the Gender Gap Index, second to last in the WEF Gender Equality Forum, and constantly appears on the list of most dangerous countries for women. We own a tainted history when it comes to women’s rights, with violence against women and girls at unacceptably high levels today. The ‘chador aur char diwari’ refrain of the Zia years still affects our mindset. Yet women’s visibility in all areas of life, including public life and governance, is vital if Pakistan wants to close the gender gap.

Women’s visibility is not important just for cosmetic reasons, or to fulfil a ‘feminist agenda’ and please ‘Western’ interests. When women are included in powerful positions and decision-making, they represent the interests of 50 per cent of Pakistan’s population. They monitor the effect that government policies have on women, shaping policy so that it serves all genders — men, women and trans. They fight for more resources to be allocated to spend on women; women’s political authority and leadership become more socially acceptable.

Men make the decisions, women stay in the background.

Benazir Bhutto’s election as prime minister in 1988 made headlines around the world; she was the first woman leader of a Muslim nation, and a lot was expected of her. However, her government was ineffective in repealing Zia’s discriminatory laws, or achieving any significant pro-women legislation. Pakistan had to be content with the symbolic achievement of a woman occupying the highest office; we still look back to her as the pinnacle of women’s visibility in governance, if not its apex in freeing women from societal and legal oppression. That memory is not enough for us.

In the recent elections, Pakistanis demonstrated that women do belong in government. Strong electoral reforms promoted women’s participation in the elections, both as voters and candidates. As a result, women represented 44pc of registered voters nationwide, but Pakistan still ranks last in women’s turnout in the world, with informal social taboos and underhanded deals preventing women from voting freely in July. Only eight women were elected to the National Assembly on general seats, out of 183 running, largely to satisfy the Election Commission of Pakistan’s requirement that 5pc of party tickets be given to women.

Since the Women’s Protection Bill was passed in 2006; women parliamentarians have achieved tremendous success in formulating legislation and reforms that address gender-based violence, discrimination, harassment, and other protections for women and girls. But lack of funding, implementation and enforcement hampers the laws’ effectiveness at the provincial and national level. In 2018, the paucity of women in public office reflects that gender equality issues and women-friendly policies have been relegated to a low priority for the new government.

Over the years, Pakistani women have made great strides in achieving higher prominence in public office, but this seems to have been reversed; presently, there are only three federal ministers and one Punjab minister who are women. There are no women judges in the Supreme Court, nor on the Economic Advisory Council. Women are shut out of the highest levels of the bureaucracy; the chauvinism of that institution merits another essay alone.

What’s worse, women in governance have been left out of key decision-making roles in economics, business and trade, security, defence, foreign policy and education, even though their contributions to these fields would result in tremendous progress for our nation. Twenty years on since we first elected a woman as prime minister, the Pakistani government must increase women’s representation in leadership positions, or risk perpetuating injustice and stagnation instead of eliminating it as promised. Our daughters deserve at least this much.

The writer is the author of Before She Sleeps.

Twitter: @binashah

Published in Dawn, December 16th, 2018