Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A Woman Speaker: Another Token or Real Change?

Pakistan's new Parliament on Wednesday made history by electing the country's first female speaker from the party of late Benazir Bhutto.

Fehmida Mirza, 51, a businesswoman and medical doctor from a political family in Sindh province, elected to Parliament three times, won 249 of the 324 votes cast in a ballot in the National Assembly, or lower house. Her only challenger received 70 votes. Dr. Fehmida's husband, Dr. Zulfiqar Mirza, is a close friend and ally of Asif Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto.
"I am honored, I am humbled and happy," Mirza told reporters shortly before voting began. "It is one thing to sit in opposition but this chair carries big responsibility ... I am feeling that responsibility today and will, God willing, come up to expectations," she said.

In addition to the election of the first female speaker of parliament in Pakistan, the inauguration of new parliament is historic in another way: There are no burqas in sight with the defeat of the cleric alliance MMA. The real question now is whether these "history-making" events represent a real change or they are just cosmetic?

Writing in a prior post "Are Women in Pakistan Better Off Today?" I wrote as follows: "Most of the women represented in Pakistani parliament are from the same privileged, feudal class that is largely responsible for discrimination against women in Pakistan. The women in parliament have not been particularly vocal in raising the women's issues in parliament and they have not offered any serious legislation other than the Women's Protection Bill that was offered and passed because of President Musharraf's personal intervention. The word "feudal princess" often used to describe late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto applies well to the majority the women members of parliament in Pakistan. There is a continuing large literacy gap of as much as 45 percent between men and women and the opportunities for rural women's education remain elusive."

Though articulate and accomplished as a politician and a medical doctor, Dr. Fehmida Mirza fits the description of a feudal princess in the same way that Ms Bhutto did. Only time will tell if Dr. Mirza will break this stereotype and ring in real fundamental changes in the political process by being a positive and practical role model for women.


Riaz Haq said...

Here's an interesting rundown on women members of Pak parliament that I found on

Majority of the elected women have either a feudal background or they are daughters, sisters or wives of the political stalwarts or former National Assembly members, or members of the former provincial assemblies or Senate. Begum Ishrat Ashraf is wife of Chaudhry Jaffar Iqbal, a former National Assembly deputy speaker. Similarly, Farzana Raja is sister-in-law of Pir Mazhar-ul-Haq who has been nominated as the parliamentary leader in the Sindh Assembly and wife of Pir Mukaram Ali. Marvi Memon is daughter of Federal Information Minister Nisar A Memon while Sameena Mushtaq Pagawala is also sister-in-law of former MNA Mushtaq Pagawala. Mehreen Anwar Raja is daughter of Raja Mohammad Anwar, a veteran politician and lawyer. A late PPP leader Sheikh Rashid was the former secretary general of the party and close aide of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. His wife Shakeela Khanum has also been elected on reserved seats.

Yasmeen Rehman is wife of Mian Misbah-ur-Rehman and sister of Attorney General Malik Mohammad Qayum and Pervaiz Malik, a leader of the PML-N. Sumaira Malik is niece of former president Farooq Ahmad Khan Leghari. Nafisa Shah is daughter of Qaim Ali Shah, a future chief minister of Sindh. Mamoona Hashmi is the daughter of Javed Hashmi and elected on the PML-N reserved seat.

Palwasha Muhammadzai is a niece of former parliamentarian Fauzia Behram. Farah Naz Ispahani is wife of Hussain Haqqani who was the former ambassador and important figure in the PPP. Similarly Kaneez Fiza Junejo is daughter of Muhammad Khan Junejo, a former prime minister. Asma Arbab Alamgir is wife of Dr Arbab Alamgir and daughter-in-law of late Arbab Jahangir.

Shazia Naheed is a daughter of MPA Atta Ahmad Maree. Nargis Khan is daughter of former law minister ND Khan. Samah Perveen Magasi is wife of Balochistan Governor Zulfiqar Magasi. Safina Saima Khar is wife of former MNA Malik Ghulam Arbi Khar. Nargis Parveen Awan is wife of former minister Malik Mukhtar Ahmad Awan. In addition, Sheher Bano, Sherry Rehman, Tehmina Daultana, Rukhsana Bangash, Shahnaz Wazir Ali, Fkhar-un-Nisa Khokhar, Attiya Inayatullah have also been elected.

Some 17 female candidates who won on the reserved seats from both the national and the provincial assemblies will have to quit one seats when they take oath. The Election Commission has notified the success of 17 female candidates on the reserved seats for women in the national and provincial assemblies. It is worth mentioning that five female candidates of the PML-N and six of the PPP won from both general and reserved seats and they will vacate one seat.

Farzana Raja, Fakhr-un-Nisa Khokhar, Fauzia Habib, Yasmin Rahman, Shakila Khanam and Samina Mushtaq Paganwala of the PPP were also declared successful. The successful PML-N candidates include Tahira Aurangzeb, Nighat Parveen Mir, Tahira Mansoor, Shahnaz Salim and Parveen Masood Bhatti. Farah Naz Esphahani, Shagufta Jamani and Mehreen Razaq Bhutto won from the PPP platform in Sindh. Likewise Asma Arbab Alamgir, Mir-un-Nisa Afridi and Farhat Begum were elected from the NWFP on the PPP’s platform.

According to the final results, Zobaida Jalal (independent) and Zaib Jafar Iqbal (PML-N) have been elected on women reserved seats as NA members. Zobaida lost from NA-272 Gwadar as independent to Mir Yaqoob Bazenjo but on reserved seats she has returned on the PML-Q ticket. Zaib Jafar Iqbal lost on NA-193 Rahimyar Khan-II to Mian Abdul Sattar of the PPP.

Riaz Haq said...

Here's a 2008 Guardian story by Dilip Hiro on Pak feudal power:

The roots of feudal dominance lie in history. The Pakistan Muslim League, the parent of its present two versions, is the descendant of the All India Muslim League (AIML). Formed in 1906 to promote loyalty to the British Crown while advancing Muslim interests, the AIML was led by Muslim grandees and feudal lords. It was not until 1940 that it demanded partition of the Indian sub-continent, with Muslim majority areas constituting independent states. Unlike the anti-imperialist Indian National Congress, it lacked an economic programme favouring small and landless peasants, and trade unions for industrial workers.

Given the traditional peasants' servitude to landowners, and almost universal illiteracy in rural Pakistan, where most people lived, electoral politics became the privilege of large landlords, who controlled vote banks. During elections their choice of a party depended on self-interest: which one will supply or raise government-subsidised irrigation water and/or fertiliser; or build roads to the villages they owned.

This continues. A recent report in the Observer from Old Jatoi (population, 3,000) in Sindh is illustrative. While the peasants working for the local grandee, Mustafa Jatoi, live in shacks, his spacious house is surrounded by green lawns and high white walls, with its driveway chocked with Toyota SUVs and Suzuki Mehrans, now deployed to transport him to drummed-up rallies.

His electoral rival, Arif Jatoi, too has similar assets. But he takes time off to fly to Islamabad to seek extra development funds for his area from the prime minister, allied with the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League-Q.

In the more populous Punjab province, the Lahore-based Chaudhry Pervez Elahi, a PML-Q candidate, charters a helicopter to campaign in his rural constituency, promising to bring a gas pipeline to the villages. The family's fortunes have come from textile factories. Likewise, Nawaz Sharif and his brother, the leaders of the opposition PML-N, have amassed millions from their industrial assets.

It would be naïve to expect such super-affluent Pakistanis to advance the interests of landless peasants or poorly paid factory workers.

The near-monopoly of power by the Pakistan Muslim League was broken in 1967 when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, father of Benazir, established the Pakistan People's Party. He coined a catchy, all-embracing slogan: "Islam is our faith, democracy our polity, socialism our economy; and all power to the people." It won him the sobriquet of "a socialist demagogue".

While advocating socialist economy, he never uttered the term "land reform". He could not. He possessed 12,000 acres of rice-growing land. He behaved as haughtily as any other feudal lord. So too did his daughter, Benazir. The corruption and the affluence of her and her polo-playing husband, Asif Zardari, are widely known.

Just as with the Jatois elsewhere in Sindh, any electoral rivalry is between competing estate owners. In the Bhutto-Zardari case, it is Benazir's cousin, Mumtaz. Owner of 15,000 acres of arable land worth £12 million, he earns an annual tax-free income of £345,000 in a country with per capita income of £350 a year.

In a recent interview, Mr. Bhutto waxed eloquent about his last summer holiday at Hotel Splendido in Portofino on Italy's Amalfi coast while his peasants suffered the humid heat needed for rice to grow. It was a break from his normal summer forays to apartments in London's posh Mayfair or Knightsbridge.

The glaring scandal of the present election campaign is the total absence of the long-overdue debate about land reform, where the state takes over the land above the legal ceiling and distributes it among landless peasants.

Riaz Haq said...

Here's a partial transcript of a recent NPR ToTn dscussion about a book "Paradise Beneath Her Feet" written Isabel Coleman about women;s rights in Islam:

CONAN: And let me anticipate some questions from our audience. Some might argue that there are aspects of Islam and some cultural traditions, too, that seem incompatible with equality for women.

Ms. COLEMAN: I think that's probably true, that there are aspects, if you read the Christian Bible quite literally, that pose challenges for women, and that's absolutely true of the Quran. There are passages in the Quran that pose challenges for women's rights within Islam.

But that doesn't mean that you can't still look at the text and contextualize them. What many of the men and women today are trying to do within Islam is argue that times change, and you have to read them differently. You have to think about them in the present, not only in the past, and find new meanings and new ways to circle that square.

CONAN: You describe this as, I think the word is ishtihad. Am I pronouncing that correctly?

Ms. COLEMAN: Yes, ishtihad, which is it's a legal process that has been within Islam for centuries, which is a process of intellectual reasoning -looking at the text and trying to work with the text to come up with answers to questions that are modern question that pertain to today and people's very real lives that they live.

CONAN: There is another school of thought, however, that what's needed to be interpreted in the Quran has been interpreted, and this is all settled by now.

Ms. COLEMAN: Indeed it is, and the book talks about the tension between these two schools, these two approaches, in effect. And you have very conservative, very narrow, traditionalist readings that prescribe a very narrow role for women in society, and you have much more progressive, open interpretations. And the book is looking at how those two different schools are interacting in today's modern world and duking it out, in effect, in countries across the Middle East.

CONAN: We want to focus, because we have a guest here who's very familiar with this work in Afghanistan, on that country, which is of course central to U.S. foreign policy right at the moment, along with Iraq and Saudi Arabia and some of the other countries you talk about. But since we have a guest from Afghanistan, let's focus there.

And we hear of an almost puritanical interpretation of Islam that informs much of the Taliban movement, which, of course, ruled Afghanistan for many years.

Ms. COLEMAN: Well, that is absolutely true. You've got a very conservative, very narrow, traditionalist perspective in Afghanistan, that prescribes the very harsh treatment of women.

I mean, the Taliban is really the worst of the worst when it comes to women. But you also have very open and modern and progressive thinkers in Afghanistan today, and unfortunately, both of these sides are really vying for position and control in that country, and women are very much on the front lines of the war that is taking place across these two sides.

CONAN: Well, let's introduce Sakena Yacoobi. She founded and directs the Afghan Institute of Learning, a nonprofit organization that provides health and education services to women and children in Afghanistan, and she joins us today here in Studio 3A in Washington. It's great to have you with us on TALK OF THE NATION.

Riaz Haq said...

Here's BBC's Soutik Biswas's review of "India: A Portrait" by historian Patrick French arguing that India is becoming a hereditary monarchy:

Is India sliding into a pseudo monarchy of sorts? In his splendid new book, India: A Portrait, historian Patrick French dredges up some startling data on the stranglehold of family and lineage on Indian politics.

The research finds that though less than a third of India's parliamentarians had a hereditary connection, things get worse with the younger MPs. Consider this:

Every MP in the Lok Sabha or the lower house of the Indian parliament under the age of 30 had inherited a seat.
More than two thirds of the 66 MPs aged 40 or under are hereditary MPs.
Every Congress MP under the age of 35 was a hereditary MP.
Nearly 40% of the 66 ministers who are members of the Lok Sabha were hereditary members.
Nearly 70% of the women MPs have family connections.
Interestingly, for MPs over 50, the proportion with a father or relative in politics was a rather modest 17.9%. But when you looked at those aged 50 or under, this increased by more than two and a half times to nearly half, or 47.2%.

Also most of the younger hereditary MPs - and ministers - have not made a mark and sometimes have been shockingly conservative in their actions. A young MP from feudal Haryana, for example, was seen to be cosying up to extra-constitutional village councils in the state which were punishing couples for marrying outside their caste and clan.

"If the trend continued," concludes French, "it was possible that most members of the Indian Parliament would be there by heredity alone, and the nation would be back to where it had started before the freedom struggle, with rule by a hereditary monarch and assorted Indian princelings." He also worries the next Lok Sabha will be a "house of dynasts".

Most agree that growing nepotistic and lineage-based power in the world's largest democracy is a matter of concern. "The idea of India," political scientist Mahesh Rangarajan told me, "is rent apart by these two contradictory impulses."

But nepotism is a part of India life; and politics mirrors society. Power, wealth, land and status have hinged to a large extent on who your parents were, what they owned and where they stood in society. Most Indian businesses continue to be owned and run by families though the new economy is throwing up more first generation entrepreneurs. Bollywood, India's thriving film industry, is dominated by sons and daughters of famous actors and producers. Three members of one family - Nehru-Gandhi - have held the post of prime minister. If the Congress party wins the next elections and PM Manmohan Singh steps down, there is a likelihood of the dynast Rahul Gandhi becoming India's next prime minister. (It is no surprise that 37% of the MPs - 78 of 208 - in Congress are hereditary compared to only 19% hereditary MPs - 22 of the 116 - in the main opposition BJP.)

Despite French's troubling data, all may not be lost. "Please remember," Dr Rangarajan told me, "the MPs have lineage as a huge plus, but the posts are not hereditary." In other words, if they fail to deliver, they will be voted out of power. Merit triumphed over dynasty in the recent elections in dirt-poor Bihar. So though lineage remains a key factor in politics, remind analysts, it can only give a headstart, and nothing more. Thank democracy for that.