No ‘tabdeeli’ for women?

There are less women in leadership roles in the PTI's government than there were in PPP's and PML-N's tenures, notes Ayesha Ijaz Khan

No ‘tabdeeli’ for women?
Safeguarding women’s rights and working for their equality in Pakistan has never been high on Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) to-do list. The party’s track record on women’s issues is not very inspiring. Whether one considers its positions on women-friendly legislation, its appointments to high offices, the ways it has dealt with complaints of sexual harassment, or simply the visibility and importance given to female members of the party, the PTI scores well below the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and also figures behind the not-as-progressive Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).

Let’s rewind back to 2006, the year that the Women’s Protection Bill was put up for vote in Pakistan’s national legislature. Back then, General Musharraf was president and his Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) the ruling party. The PPP and the PML-N sat in the opposition, as did the PTI, with its lone seat occupied by Imran Khan himself. Opposition MNA Sherry Rehman presented the bill, which sought to amend the Hudood Ordinance enacted by General Ziaul Haq’s regime in 1979. Under this law, adultery was criminalised and the difference between rape and adultery was also blurred.
In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the province where the PTI had its own government, legislation for protection of women from violence was never introduced in the provincial assembly

Raped women were expected to produce four witnesses to prove the crime, which was essentially impossible. To add insult to injury, if a woman became pregnant as a result of rape, her pregnancy was taken as conclusive proof of adultery and she was jailed.

The new bill sought to correct this gross injustice by placing the offence of rape under the Pakistan Penal Code, which was the case prior to 1979, so that a woman who had been raped could file a police report and have a medical examination to determine the veracity of her claim.

The bill, which should have been seen as a straight-forward attempt to correct a grotesque injustice, sparked controversy instead. The Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a combination of religiously-inclined political parties, including Jamaat-e-Islami and Fazlur-Rehman’s JUI-F, were the usual suspects, opposing this legislation. They were not the only ones. The PML-N and the PTI also refused to support the bill.

Khawaja Saad Rafique was as vocal about opposing the bill as Maulana Fazlur Rehman. Imran Khan made the usual dodgy noises about the bill “appeasing the West.” It is important to note that although President Musharraf supported the bill himself and had urged the PML-Q to do so as well, key members of his party, notably Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and Pervez Elahi (now a coalition partner of Imran Khan’s government and Speaker of the Punjab Assembly) decided not to show up that day.

Several women served as ministers in the PML-N government,
perhaps as a result of Maryam Nawaz's growing influence

A decade later, in 2016, the PML-N government, miraculously decided to follow in the footsteps of the PPP, and introduced the Protection of Women Against Violence Act in the Punjab Assembly, mirroring the law passed in Sindh in 2013. The bill passed in the Punjab as well but male members of the PTI walked off the assembly floor, refusing to vote for it, just as their leader Imran Khan had done in the national assembly a decade earlier.

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the province where the PTI had its own government, the legislation was never introduced in the provincial assembly. Instead, Imran Khan opted to send the legislation to the Council of Islamic Ideology, for its comments. Curiously, other bills, not connected to women’s rights, never saw the same fate.

This then begs the question - what changed in those ten years to make the PML-N a relatively more progressive party but saw the PTI stuck in the same women-averse mode? The most plausible answer to this is that Maryam Nawaz Sharif gained more prominence and influence within the party.  Opposed as I am to dynastic politics, one must acknowledge South Asian women – often First Daughters - also have a great historical legacy of challenging entrenched patriarchal structures.

Benazir Bhutto personally ensured, on more than one occasion, that men who disrespected women were taken to task and even expelled from the party

Benazir Bhutto, though she inherited leadership of the PPP from her father, adopted a fundamentally different approach to female membership and visibility within the party. It is no surprise, then, that the party led by the first Muslim woman head of government is also the party that subsequently appointed the first female speaker of the National Assembly (Fehmida Mirza), the first female Foreign Minister (Hina Rabbani Khar), the first female nazim (Nafisa Shah) and the first female Leader of the opposition in the senate (Sherry Rehman). The PPP also awarded 11 tickets to women to contest elections on general seats in the 2018 elections.

But the PML-N also improved significantly over the years. Although the party awarded no tickets to women to contest on general seats in 2013, it gave 11 such tickets in the 2018 general election. Contrast that with the PTI, offering only six to female contenders. Moreover, the PML-N, in its last tenure, appointed two women as federal ministers: Maryam Aurangzeb as information minister and Anusha Rehman as minister for information technology and telecommunication Minister. In the Punjab cabinet, three ministers were women: Hameeda Wahidudin headed women’s development, Aisha Ghous Pasha served as finance minister and Zakia Shahnawaz was the minister for population welfare.

In the current PTI tenure, on the other hand, only one woman from the party has been given a federal ministry, Shireen Mazari, as minister for human rights. The other two women in the federal cabinet - Minister for Inter-provincial Coordination Fehmida Mirza and Minister for Defence Production Zubeida Jalal - are not from the PTI, but representatives of coalition partners, adjusted in the cabinet as a result of demands of the allies.

Moreover, in the two provinces where the PTI has formed government, the situation is even more depressing. In the Punjab, only one female minister, namely Yasmin Rashid who holds the portfolio for health, down from three under the PML-N.

In KP, no woman has been made minister. Under the ANP-PPP coalition government of 2008-13, KP had at least one female minister, Sitara Imran, looking after social welfare and women’s development.

When Benazir took over the reins of the PPP, some patriarchal stalwarts had trouble accepting her. Mumtaz Bhutto, her uncle, was among them. Similarly, as Maryam rose to prominence within the PML-N, the likes of Chaudhry Nisar could not bear it. Benazir Bhutto has a special place in history and Maryam Nawaz Sharif cannot be compared with her, but the two are similar in that their fathers preferred to groom their daughters for the political arena instead of their sons.

This fact alone can change the culture and the ethos of a political party enough to give women greater respect and visibility. In turn, it allows younger aspiring female politicians to be mentored by women higher up in the ranks, and generally creates an environment which is more comfortable for women to work in.

We have seen in the PPP’s case particularly that when instances of harassment or disrespect towards women were reported, action was taken by the leadership. Benazir Bhutto personally saw to it, on more than one occasion, that men who disrespected women were taken to task and even expelled from the party.

After her tragic assassination, her daughters Aseefa and Bakhtawar ensured that men like Irfanullah Marwat were denied party membership and tickets because of their past offences against women. The PML-N is yet to match the PPP’s record of taking action on such cases, but its trajectory is in the right direction.

In the case of PTI, however, it is unfortunate that the party, despite its claims of being the party of change, never elevated women to a place of authority.  With the exception of Shireen Mazari, who previously was the party’s spokesperson on foreign affairs, no other women held any significant position within the party. It should therefore not surprise us if there are hardly any female ministers in the current government or if no women were appointed to the Economic Advisory Council.

The writer is a lawyer based in London and tweets @ayeshaijazkhan