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Political parties need women leaders

IN the midst of the excitement of the formation of Pakistan`s new government, and all the self-congratulations about the transition from one democratic government to another, a different story captured some headlines recently.

This was the news that Fauzia Kasuri, a Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) senior leader and head of the party`s women`s wing, had decided to leave the party.

After the murder of Zahra Shahid Hussain on the eve of the re-poll for NA-250 in Karachi, and in light of the death of Benazir Bhutto in 2007, perhaps it`s a good time to examine the importance of women`s presence in Pakistani political parties, particularly in leadership positions.

Fauzia Kasuri`s decision came after 16 years of dedication, during which she travelled across the country and the world raising money for the party, garnering support for its agenda, and stumping for the elections. She even gave up her US citizenship so that she could join the National Assembly, as Imran Khan had promised her a ticket for a reserved women`s seat, the standard recompense to senior women leaders in Pakistani political parties for their loyalty and hard work.

But somewhere in the runup to the elections, something went wrong: Kasuri did not receive the promised reserved seat. PTI officially claimed she was not yetcleared to contest in the intraparty polls due to the dual nationality prohibition, and that she hadn`t given up her nationality in time to be qualified for the elections.

Kasuri alleges that others were allowed to run despite being in the same position as her; she also alleges that favouritism sent her rightful ticket to someone else, less loyal to the party than her.

The incident caused a lot of disappointment in certain circles, and predictable reactions from others: Kasuri was being too emotional, she wasn`t indispensable, if she was truly loyal she could wait for a ticket the next time around.

This shows that in Pakistan, attitudes towards senior women political leaders aren`t that progressive after all, and they must fit a certain mould not too dissimilar from the role of a woman in the home. Pakistani women are accepted in politics only in rare cases, and that too if they are related to male political leaders by blood or marriage. And then we can only accept them if we attach some sort of honorific to them that reminds us of their dependency on said male political leader: Fatima Jinnah was known as Quaid-i-Azam`s sister, Benazir Bhutto was Bhutto`s daughter, Maryam Nawaz Sharif is known as Nawaz Sharif`s daughter, Fauzia Kasuri was known as The Mother of PTL Pakistani politicians of the male variety are astute; they know that they need women leaders and party workers in order to gain the vote of nearly 40 million women who are eligible to vote.

Tina Mufford of theInternational Republican Institute writes in her report on The Role of Women in Political Parties that women are seen as less corrupt, are more keyed into the problems and issues of social communities, and are seen as effective money managers.

Women have been active in politics in many ways since the creation of Pakistan: helping to organise campaigns, raise money, recruiting and organising other women, especially in rural and conservative environments, all of which in the end strengthens democracy and allows all the people of Pakistan to become aware of and enjoy their full political rights.

And yet Pakistani women still have a difficult time obtaining positions of leadership within Pakistani political parties. Social stigma discourages women from taking prominent positions which might involve public appearances and contact with strangers. Patriarchy and religious conservatism vehemently argue that women are not fit to be leaders, and that they belong only in the home, looking after children, and supporting their spouses.

These regressive attitudes have resulted in the women`s reserved seats being seen as the bastion of nepotism, as the female relatives of elite male politicians use their voting bloc to add heft to their relatives` political positions.

Then, when women achieve leadership roles, they`re not taken seriously: a particularly malicious television news report recently showed women parliamentarians coming to the National Assembly for the oath-taking ceremony. Instead of askingthem about their policies, Bollywood music played on a continuous loop as the camera focused constantly on their bodies, while reporters asked them questions about their clothes, hairstyles, and handbags.

The inclusion of women in political parties is a wise move on all counts. But having women in senior positions of leadership is essential for countless reasons. These women serve as role models for other Pakistani girls and women; they show them that their voice and vote matters, that they too have ownership of the country and their participation is vital to the successful functioning of the nation.

Women political leaders are best placed to formulate policy that affects both Pakistani women and men in a positive way; they`ve been seen to give priority to social issues, education, health, and population welfare that have been overlooked for decades by the men in parliament, the army, and elsewhere.

PTI is going to have a very tough job replacing the two central women leaders it has lost, but in order for it to succeed in the next elections, it should make doing so one of its top priorities. The PML-N government has got to include more women in its federal cabinet, which right now has none.

And other political parties should follow suit, grooming women (and not just the daughters and sisters of party leaders) to leadership positions so that all the women of Pakistan see faces they can vote for in 2018. • The writer is an author.

Bina Shah, "Political parties need women leaders," Dawn. 2013-06-23.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political parties , National Assembly , Democracy , Politicians , Corruption , Fauzia Kasuri , Zahra Shahid Hussain , Benazir Bhutto , Karachi , PMLN , PTI , PTL