Myopic approach

19 Oct 2020

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The writer is a freelance journalist.
The writer is a freelance journalist.

THE sun of democracy will rise soon. Mau­lana Fazlur Rehman made this poetic promise at the Pakistan Democratic Move­ment’s first rally in Gujranwala last week. His rhetoric, though lofty, is not yet sufficient to addr­ess the ambivalence of liberal watchers of the PDM, whose stance is considerably more prosaic: short-term pain for long-term gain.

The PDM is hitting the right notes for those concerned about Pakistan’s drift toward authoritarianism. Its 26-point charter touch­­es on key issues such as the transparency and sanctity of the electoral process, non-interference by the military in politics, protection of the 18th Amendment and NFC award, and the need for media freedom. Its leaders’ speeches last week touched on an additional smorgasbord of public grievances: soaring food prices, persistent corruption, lack of low-income housing, and even the administration’s poor response to locust attacks.

But conspicuous by its absence was the defence of women’s and minorities’ rights, which are increasingly under threat. What hope can there be for a democratic movement that does not prioritise representation for all?

Few expect a movement led by Maulana Fazl to centralise women’s and minorities’ issues. But those who believe in democracy are holding their nose and championing the opposition alliance for daring to take on the establishment. They argue that the maulana’s ability to mobilise the madressah constituency is essential for the PDM to present a credible threat to the government and its backers, particularly given how mainstream opposition parties have been successfully weakened. The thinking is that it’s more important to claw back space for the opposition and reinstate the democratic façade than fuss over its substance. We have drifted so far off the democratic course, that merely to critique the involvement of the military in politics is seen as triumph enough.

Where do women and minority rights figure in the PDM agenda?

The virulence of anti-minority rhetoric at recent rallies by religious and religio-political groups highlights the short-sightedness of this approach. Attempts by mainstream parties to deploy the maulana as he has previously been deployed by the powers that be will pave the way for regressive religious politics — the rightward shift in our political spectrum will be turbo-charged. Concerns about resulting sectarian strife provoke the greatest amount of discomfort with the PDM’s composition and current leadership, and scrutiny on this point will likely lead the PDM to avoid such topics while it builds momentum.

Maryam Nawaz’s prominent position among PDM leaders means that the gendered aspect of the PDM is less frequently addressed. But her presence at the podium is not a sign of genuine female representation. She is there in her capacity as heir apparent, her gender a tangent to the dynamics of dynastic politics in Pakistan. Take Maryam out of the picture, and the PDM seems an attempt to pit revolutionary religio-politics against militaristic nationalism, and there is little room for women anywhere on this spectrum.

PDM supporters will point to the presence of some women at the Gujranwala rally. This is an improvement from last November, when the Maulana marched on Islamabad, calling for azadi, but only after his party distributed pamphlets directing women not to participate in the march. That march was also marred by reports of women journalists being harassed and prevented from covering the event.

The involvement of women this time around is more optics than good politics. For it was only in February that the maulana was exhorting his party followers to block the Aurat March. He had also backed the Hasba bill, which called for religious ombudsmen to police religious obs­ervance, and more re­­­cently criticised the Protection of Women Against Vio­lence Act.

The fact that female enfranchisement is not a priority for the PDM was also revealed by Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari’s misogynist barb against the prime minister’s wife. This coming from the party leader with the strongest track record on women’s rights bodes poorly for gender inclusion.

The fact is, the PDM cannot raise the democratic flag without meaningfully defending women’s and minorities’ rights. Pakistan last year ranked 151 out of 153 countries on the Global Gender Index Report, scoring poorly on women’s economic participation, educational attainment, health and political empowerment — all factors that a democratic movement cannot ignore. The PDM’s calls for economic stabilisation also ring hollow without accompanying calls for gender equality, given that parity would add more than $30bn (or 7.1 per cent of GDP) to the economy.

If this movement is to gain traction, it must add the defence of women’s and minorities’ rights to its charter. It may not be able to implement this promise immediately, as it fights more urgent battles, but it will provide reassurance that the pro-democracy stance is not merely a political ploy.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, October 19th, 2020