Mothers in parliament

Updated May 20, 2019


EARLIER this month, Mahjabeen Shereen, a member of the Balochistan Assembly, was faced with a dilemma that plagues every working mother: sacrifice either her child’s needs or her professional obligations.

She opted for neither, instead bringing her unwell infant into the chamber, maintaining her attendance record to effectively represent her constituents on the reserved seat she was elected on last year.

Rather than being supportive, however, her colleagues are said to have chastised the MPA, forcing her to leave the session, despite posing no disruption to the proceedings.

Prior to this incident, MPA Shereen said she had asked the assembly secretary for a spare room to be converted into a day-care facility — a request that was denied.

It is shameful that in a country of historical firsts — three decades ago, Benazir Bhutto became not only the first elected female leader of a Muslim country, but also the first elected leader in the world to give birth in office — progress for women lawmakers from less illustrious backgrounds has remained stagnant.

In a profession that remains stubbornly male, affirmative actions isolated from a holistic policy of inclusion are merely tokenistic.

Though electoral laws on voting and representation guarantee at least a minimum benchmark of political participation, little thought has been given to aspects of political and legislative rules, both official and implicit, that effectively discriminate against the female experience, including motherhood.

In a modern Pakistan, however, legislatures should be inclusive and reflect the realities of the diverse population they represent.

There are many parliamentary precedents from other countries to refer to which dispute assertions of impracticalities; environmental and procedural measures that account for lawmakers of all socioeconomic backgrounds, family structures and abilities — in this case, not assuming that all parliamentarian parents have the luxury, or desire, to leave their child with another caregiver.

Two years ago in Islamabad, a day-care centre was inaugurated in Parliament House — another first. It is well past time to ensure it is not the only among Pakistan’s legislatures.

Published in Dawn, May 20th, 2019