It feels wonderful to imagine even though for just a bit that the world has changed for a woman aspiring to pursue a career in politics. She has attained that perfect work-life balance; her husband is supportive; from the local level to the top office, it’s a fair game. Let’s imagine the demands of the job have changed. She need not be a daughter of a disqualified or executed leader; she need not marry an influential agriculturist or industrialist or be pretty to be a politician. Imagine, she has learnt to take the heat and fight the race to power.
If this were to come true, even though for just a bit, would politics become a preferred path for a woman?
“Politics is not a career. It’s only for a person who does other things for a living,” says former Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar. A good career, she points out, requires a good monetary package and predictability, “which politics certainly doesn’t guarantee. In fact in politics one loses a living. And that is not specific to women, men endure the same throughout their lifetime in politics.”
Agreed, politics is as rough for men as for women. But many of those who have worked tirelessly to get a fairer representation have underlined the numerous barriers to success: patriarchal mindset, all man’s world, sexual and verbal violence… Alongside, of course, managing the long and often unpredictable hours.
Still, if she shows courage, conviction and commitment, what really are the unwritten job requirements? Is it easier for a single woman to be successful rather than married? Or, in a traditional society like Pakistan, children and a consort is required by her side to deflect smear, attacks on her sexuality? “For any woman who wishes to negotiate a role for herself in the public sphere, it is easier to be married,” says Ayesha Khan, who is Director at the Collective for Social Science Research and is currently undertaking a study on women’s collective action to improve their political voice in Pakistan. “In politics, though, women have been successful even when single, but that seems to be more of an option if they have elite protection — as did Benazir for some time, as did Sughra Imam when she was in local politics and in the Senate, and Nafisa Shah, who has been district nazim and PPP MNA on reserved seats. That is not to say it was easy for them at all.”
Quite bizarrely, having babies puts women at a disadvantage. Khar had two children while she was in office. “I had to play multiple roles. To be a tough taskmaster in office, I was usually the first one to get in and the last to leave, while striving to manage home and family. It required a fine balancing act.”
These conflict of responsibilities is her private life. Pardon the expression, but, perhaps, it’s time for her to ‘man up’. But how must she cope with growing sexist comments and sexual objectification? How must she try to dispel the perception that ‘this is just politics’, ‘its usual politics’? “It’s a killer,” says Khar.
Commenting on the recent comments by Rana Sanaullah, Tallal Chaudry and Abid Sher Ali against PTI women supporters, she says, “This misogynic mindset that normalises such abuse on women is… ghatiya. That is the only word I can think of for this deplorable behaviour.”
“The present parliament will be remembered for misogynistic statements and sexual harassment allegations against MPs made on the floor of the house,” regrets Bushra Gohar, ANP leader and former MNA.
Violence against female politicians is becoming an increasing concern. Forms of sexual and verbal abuses are largely shielded from public attention either because they take place in private or are naturalised and accepted. While this kind of hostility and intimidation may drive women to drop out of the race, only a few are able to overcome this obstacle to succeed — or at least keep going.
“The best remedy for violence against female politicians, and sexual harassment, is more women in the public sphere — and everywhere,” thinks Ayesha Khan. “That means even more women in elected bodies, especially on general seats…”
A female politician is expected to carry on the patriarchal legacy. She joins the office either in the name of her father or husband. Take Benazir Bhutto. Her father’s killing led her to launch her career in politics. Then, when the electoral rule of a bachelor’s degree requirement for legislators imposed by Musharraf before the 2002 elections disqualified no less than 60 legislators from running the elections, some of them nominated female family members to retain their traditional constituencies. Even though this disqualification is not valid any more, the trend set is disturbing. Kulsum Nawaz has been elected from NA120 after her husband Nawaz Sharif was disqualified. The ‘groom’ and ‘launch’ syndrome of Maryam Nawaz is reflective of the same mindset.
“We are seeing changes, though. Women on reserved seats in the elected assemblies have been indirectly elected by the men in their parties, and in many cases are considered proxies for their male relatives. However, their conscientiousness and performance as parliamentarians outstrip that of their male counterparts,” says Ayesha Khan.
Most mainstream political parties cannot boast of allowing women a fair representation in the political processes in the country. So far, the PPP has been most open to granting seats to women politicians. In the current National Assembly only nine are elected — five of which represent the PPPP, among them two are Zardari sisters. The rest fill the reserved seats.
Read also: As lawmakers
“The election of women on reserved seats should also be through direct elections,” says Bushra Gohar. “The new Elections Act 2017 has bound political parties to give a minimum of five per cent general seats tickets to women. A party that fails to do so will not be awarded election symbol by the ECP. This is a significant step forward.”
With years of experience as a female politician from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Gohar is witness to the nasty game of power politics. “The parties charge more than double application fee for reserved seat tickets than for general seats. This negates the very purpose of the reserved seats as many strong women workers can’t afford it and are kept out of the process.”
Ayesha Khan thinks unfortunately power, particularly political power, is rarely ceded. “It has to be taken. This means the state has to legislate and push for women’s inclusion, which it is slowly beginning to do.”
Is it then time to challenge the myths about why there aren’t more women at the top and allow them to build this as a logical career choice?