For some years now, ahead of the International Women’s Day that falls on March 8, the people of Lahore wake up to posters of influential Pakistani women dotting all major roads in the city. This year wasn’t any different. In the expected, though random, list that mostly includes politicians, literary giants and sportswomen, there was Malala Yusufzai and twice Oscar winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy.
Another unexpected poster lady was the Pakistani-born astrophysicist Dr Nergis Mavalvala, who apparently has been ‘owned’ by a state that would never approve of the life choices she’s made. Conspicuous by her absence was Pakistan’s best-known woman, the twice elected former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. But then political compulsions often take precedence in matters political.
No matter how uplifting, these posters did highlight the contrast with the reality on ground — the male-dominated roads and streets. All this is going to change, or so is the impression one gets after reading some op-eds about the ruling party and its leader turning ‘liberal’.
To be fair, some recent political developments do seem like a quantum leap from the position — right of centre —the party has held for a long time. The women-specific policies include the proposed bill to change the child marriage age, the domestic violence bill, the proposal for expanding maternity leave and child care and, of course, the announcement to change laws to discourage honour killing after the screening of the Chinoy film at the Prime Minister’s secretariat.
Other achievements being placed at the door of the ruling party include the unbanning of YouTube, overseeing a smooth implementation of the death sentence of Mumtaz Qadri, the killer of former Governor Salmaan Taseer (no one had a clue as to when when President Mamnoon Hussain rejected Qadri’s mercy appeal) to the more recent announcement of Holi, Diwali and Easter being holidays in Pakistan.
There are some relevant questions being asked alongside. In a polity where the party owes its existence in power to the military, having ceded the most crucial space to it, any progressive agenda it may have in mind can only be in the sphere where it is allowed to act. So, do these progressive acts fall in with the party’s economic agenda where international investment is crucial and is hinged on the country’s image?
The country’s image abroad is tattered, no doubt, and extremism as well as treatment of women largely shape that image.
Some analysts think the prime minister’s daughter, Maryam Nawaz, is influencing her father in changing his own and the party’s image. Is she doing that out of a genuine concern for the party or does this openness for women improve her own chances as the next leader is another valid question.
More importantly, given the party’s ideological base and constituency, how does it propose to deal with the reaction, both from within the party as well from the religious right whose perceived street power has kept most governments on their toes? In at least one case, the proposed child marriage bill put forth by the ruling party’s Marvi Memon was withdrawn after the backlash from the Council of Islamic Ideology. About the rest, the prime minister remains curiously defiant.
In some cases, the analysts’ favourite quote about the military and the civilian government “being on the same page” may have done the trick. The government may not have much to do with the media management in the aftermath of Mumtaz Qadri’s hanging and is thus being credited for something it did not do. The actual ‘credit’ for elimination of sectarian leaders in police encounters, the “toning down of sermons” by clerics and their arrests must therefore lie with the more rooted elements of the state.
Yet, the prime minister has made moves that need to be analysed and contextualised. His speech to the international business community in November last year where he stated his resolve to make Pakistan a liberal country was not exactly retracted. The explanation that the term liberal was used in an economic rather than political sense may have fallen on deaf ulema ears when a few days later the prime minister attended a Diwali ceremony in Karachi and said something even more ‘liberal’ and not strictly in the economic sense. He said he was prime minister of all communities, and “If a Muslim person commits a crime or act of injustice against a Hindu then I will take action against the Muslim individual. I will always take action against the oppressor and will stand with the oppressed”.
From the government’s perspective, this year began with more consistent announcements that have disturbed the hardcore religious right. These policies must be weighed against the PML-N model of governance which is all about “less government, business-friendly, pro-status quo, less taxes, mega project oriented, export-driven, with connectivity for all people in its constituency”. Against this backdrop, a progressive agenda makes a lot of economic sense.
This is how the international community wants to see Pakistan and its rulers. In this regard, the rulers have indeed touched a few right chords here and there. Whether that makes them progressive in the real sense is up for debate.
To start with, they are ardent supporters of little or no government in areas as crucial as education and health. They haven’t really taxed the rich yet. They haven’t spoken a word about marginalised sections like labour, farmers, teachers, paramedics and are opposed to unionisation of any kind. They haven’t put in place any safeguards against the excesses of the market, and justice remains far from the common people.
The announcements about women empowerment do sound nice and look good on paper but they have to be translated into reality. We have yet to see the 150 women motorcyclists trained by the Punjab government ride freely on the roads.
And lastly, the ruling PML-N cannot claim to be socially liberal unless it shows some sensitivity to culture and history. The way it has obliterated historical and cultural monuments in its haste to build mega projects and banned centuries’ old seasonal festivals make the liberal claims tenuous at best.