Saturday September 30, 2023

Women in politics

November 15, 2020

“Biden beats Trump”. “Harris is first woman elected vice president” screamed headlines all over the world. For women across the globe, the second headline was probably more exciting and inspiring. At 56, Kamala Harris, sometimes called the female Barack Obama in politics, ascended the competitive US political process to become the first woman vice president in the more than two centuries of American democracy.

Back home in Pakistan, we are no strangers to women leadership. As a country just seven decades old, we have elected a female prime minister twice and we can talk about a few brilliant women in politics of our own. However, for most Pakistani women, with no political or social family background, the dream of achieving any political position is farfetched.

A few months ago, Pakistani social media went ballistic overnight when a woman minister gave factually incorrect information on national television. The memes and the jokes that followed were hilarious and most downright derogatory. The creative world of Pakistani meme-making had a heyday and most of us shared and reshared on a light note what became known as the biggest gaffe of all of Pakistan’s Covid-19 related gaffes combined. An incident of a leaked conversation of a female politician with typical living room chatter made print and television headlines resulting in her losing her party position and membership.

Similarly, another woman leader, an aspirant for the prime minister’s role is discussed more for her looks and wardrobe than her political struggle. The ridicule women in politics suffer is a global trend but the way South Asian and Pakistani women suffer is sometimes unprecedented.

All this leads to crucial issues that need to be explored. Are men in politics and otherwise, no matter how incompetent, subjected to the same ridicule? We have various men in powerful positions saying stuff they can get away with while women cannot. How badly are men punished for intraparty disciplinary issues -- including prime-time television interviews? The fact is that like all other professions, women have it much harder when it comes to the cut-throat world of politics. They have to work harder, prove their loyalty doubly and cover up their gaffes more than their male counterparts.

While some may argue that social media and offline and online public spaces are ruthless and spare no one, we have to admit that when it comes to women erring, we are much more insensitive and more unforgiving.

This, however, does not mean we should discourage the competence vs incompetence debate or the suitability vs the unsuitability debate. Anyone, regardless of gender, position, and political affiliation, in a responsible position should be held accountable for unsuitability for the job as well as competence.

The Global Gender Gap report makes headlines in Pakistan each year. All articles and publication start with the key sentence: ‘Pakistan ranks poorly (precisely 151 in the 2020 report) on the gender gap’ with activists, consultants and everyone under the sun scrutinizing it in one way or the other.

Interestingly on the sub index of political representation, Pakistan is ranked fairly better but the question is: how often is the representation translated into fair representation as well as real value and decision-making positions?

In work as a development practitioner and gender and leadership trainer, I have shared the confidence of women politicians across party lines -- from the PPP and the ANP to the MQM, PML-Q and PML-N. In exclusive trainings and conversations ( on phones, social media and in-person), they open up about not just one another but also their struggles with reaching out to the top leadership, not recognized enough for their work, being abused inside and outside parties and falling prey to conspiracies and manipulation. The majority of them are hardcore on-ground party workers suffering neglect and ridicule.

A journalist, a friend or a colleague just has to say ‘I heard this' and floodgates open. Sometimes the tales are spicy and amusing, other times, downright depressing. Most of them are not trained on policy and legislation or rules of business and struggle to find their place and voice in parties and as well the legislative bodies. Others turn over-competitive and sometimes vicious with fellow women politicians due to the limited space available in the political circuit for women.

The worse stigma that makes them take a back seat is that of the reserved seat. There is a clear difference between how directly elected women politicians versus those coming on reserve seat are viewed and treated. Reserved seats were the best affirmative action to at least make the sight of women politicians normal, but the roles remain limited and voices subdued -- within and outside parties.

For us to be able to truly celebrate and own women leadership, especially in politics, we must work at several levels. Women should be able to freely own public spaces, political spaces have to open to women from non-political or feudal family backgrounds, aspirants should have opportunities to be trained in policy, female representation at the grassroots political level has to be encouraged to be able to make a difference. Sensitization at the senior level might not make much of the difference if people at the grassroots view female leadership unfavourably.

The sensitization around women and women leadership must begin at the level where people are comfortable with seeing and accepting women leaders as equals. Pakistan has several Kamala Harris’, talented and persistent. They need to be found, supported, and given the space to shine. They will not disappoint!

The writer is a policy commentator with a special focus on communications, internet governance and gender.