Sat, 08 Mar 2003

A new role for female lawmakers

Zubeida Mustafa The Dawn Asia News Network Karachi

March 8 is international women's day. While the feminist activists will be vocal in decrying the poor status of women in Pakistan, others championing the cause of the establishment will be quick to point out the progress which has been made in the field.

There will still be others who will speak about the rights of women in Islam and how far or close our society is towards achieving these. Objectively speaking, each of these is right in his/her own way to an extent. It all depends on the perspective from which one views the scene and the benchmarks which are adopted.

It also depends on the expectations one has. The fact is that compared to the status women enjoyed in Pakistan a few decades ago, their situation has certainly improved in some respects.

Collectively speaking, they are more literate, more educated and certainly more aware of their rights. They also have managed to make more public space for themselves, though some laws -- the Hudood Ordinances, for instance -- are discriminatory and retrogressive and militate against women's rights.

Moreover, if the condition of women in the country is seen in the light of the average for the Third World or other countries in our neighborhood, a sorry picture emerges. Many of these countries were at the same level as us a few decades ago but they managed to progress faster than we have.

Take female literacy, the key measure of progress in any society. With literacy and education a person is at least potentially equipped to strive for self-improvement. Female literacy is 27.9 percent in Pakistan today. This is certainly a phenomenal improvement over the seven percent recorded in the 1951 census. But when seen against the Third World average of 66 percent or the 45.4 percent which India claims today, one is made to wonder where we went wrong.

The low capacity of women to make a change in their status is reflected in the gender empowerment measure -- a yardstick devised by the UNDP to compare the status of women in different countries in terms of their ability to influence decision-making, especially in respect of their own roles in society.

Pakistan's rank in the gender-related development index is 120 out of the 146 countries listed. With the female literacy rate being less than half that of men, and women's estimated income being barely one-third of that of men, one can hardly expect women to assert themselves in public matters.

It is in this respect that those striving to make a dent in the women's situation should really worry. If women themselves do not possess the capacity to improve their status and win the basic right to have equal opportunities as men, nothing will ever help them reach that goal.

Seen in that context, many of the steps taken by the government would seem significant, but only as facilitating factors. For instance, the huge increase in women's presence in the National Assembly (73), Senate (17), the provincial assemblies (139) and the local bodies (32,000) is of course a very big step forward. But this is not the be-all and end-all of women's development. Much depends on how the women parliamentarians/councillors use their new-found powers and responsibilities.

There are many constraints they face. First, their presence in the domain of law-making is a new experience for most of them. Many have yet to find their bearings and learn to assert themselves and not be overawed by the preponderantly male composition of the law-making bodies. Besides, most of them have had to depend overly on male backing and may find it difficult to raise an independent voice.

This is the case with those women members who have won their seats through election in constituencies traditionally held by male members of their families who could not contest the elections this time because of the stringent qualifications imposed by the government.

They have not been left in any doubt that they are holding the seats for men in the families. As for those elected on the reserved seats on party tickets, they would owe their loyalty first to the party which brought them to power. Hence initially it is likely that the women will be toeing the family/party line and not really speaking up for themselves.

What is important, however, is that these legislators should develop the capacity to think independently and take decisions without being unduly influenced by their male colleagues. Experience shows that when women constitute a minority in a position of power they are forced to accede to the male opinion if they wish to survive.

By being too assertive against the male mainstream they can isolate themselves and jeopardize their public life by risking their position. That would explain why women leaders who made it to the top in a man's world -- Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, Srimavo Bandaranaike, Margaret Thatcher -- had to act the steel woman to survive.

The women who have been elected to the lawmaking bodies need to take their role very seriously. It is commendable that some women's groups -- the Aurat Foundation, for instance -- are working to provide training and knowledge to women parliamentarians and councillors in order to give them a better understanding of their potentials so that they can make use of their position to improve the status of women.

Even though progress might be slow, it is important that their direction and agenda should be correct. While the general expectation will be that the women lawmakers will work for the uplift of women, it should be emphasized that this is not their sole function. They should not allow themselves to be marginalized and be seen only as one whose sole concern is to work for the cause of women's progress.

Important though this role is, women lawmakers should also strive to provide the female perspective to every issue which comes before the legislature. Whatever might be said about gender equality, it must be admitted that many women do tend to have a distinct perspective on many issues of common concern. For instance, why should not the women's voice on male dominated issues such as defense, the nuclear program, and foreign policy be heard.

Women are beginning to make an impact on national policymaking in other countries. Take the case of the women MPs in Britain, who constitute a large group in Parliament today.

Twenty-five of them voted for the amendment to the government- sponsored resolution in the House of Commons on Wednesday last which was designed to stay the government's hand in its policy vis-a-vis Iraq. In Sweden and Norway, where women make up nearly half the lawmaking bodies, the female impact on policy-making is pretty strong.

Hence, the women who are today in a position to play a role in decision-making in Pakistan should develop a distinct cross-party approach which is women-friendly, pro-peace, pro-social justice, and pro-disarmament. They should take an assertive stand against nuclear weapons and a foreign policy that can hardly be described as pacifist.

At the end of the day, a shift in these policies in Pakistan will work in favor of women because, unlike men, the women are the ones who are doubly oppressed when a country builds up its arsenals and fights wars rather than provide social justice to its people.