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September 8, 2008

A feminist presidency?


September 8, 2008

On the eve of the Presidential election, defenders and critics were pitted in a serious debate about the suitability of Asif Zardari in the presidency. Such interest in a presidential candidate has been unprecedented in this regard. This is understandable given the dramatic turn of events and decisions that led to this eventuality. It is also due to increased media coverage that has lured Pakistanis to be informed, involved and entertained at every stage of the political circus. Despite the elitist concerns over the ‘responsibility’ expected from a private media, the fact is that access to a platform from where people can express their lay opinion and voice is more democratic than they would like to accede. By some strange logic, however, differences of opinion and criticism which used to be celebrated as an essential part of democratic norms, is something that those now in power mock and even call undemocratic. Who knew responsibility meant blind and mute loyalty? Didn’t it used to be dictators who assured us that silence guarantees stability?

While a section of the elite will always cringe at how dirty politicians are, on a more relevant level, serious commentators have not been so disturbed by the medical or financial credibility of Zardari. Instead, some have recorded their reservations regarding his ‘default’ or untested rise to power and his politically controversial history. They concede this may have no bearing on his status within the PPP but should have been a consideration with respect to the stature of the office he is now taking. Others are concerned about his reputation in the international arena and the alliances he may prefer to forge. Will these be dependent and driven by the capacity of his personally acquired wisdom and friendships, or informed by the collective Pakistani will and vision? The third and perhaps most serious concern is to do with processes and methods of acquiring office rather than any personality-based


This last concern was expressed earlier in 1999 and then too was always about the uniform and coup, not the individual. Clearly towards the end of the Musharraf regime, the criticism continued to separate his persona and was levelled against his constitutional desecration and authoritarian decision-making. It is also always about hope and the right of the people to decide. By this same token, it is not a fuss about Zardari the individual but rather despair over the insistence of replacing one president with another, in the same spirit. Zardari will have climbed in to office with all the trappings and legitimacy of representative politics by the book. But in spirit, he has sought collaboration of the same partners who assisted a dictator in; carried in a constitution that can potentially remain hostage to the person in the president’s office; and retained a judiciary that is as ‘politicised’ as the deposed one is accused of being. Even if he keeps his promise (this time) to change such excessive power imbalance, historically this will have been his chosen path.

The defenders, while dismissing the personality attacks against Zardari, have, at the same time, no qualms about harping on about his personal sacrifices, amiability and willingness to carry on his late wife’s mission. Such double standards do not make for sound analysis. Either his personality is up for assessment or its not relevant on any level. Either he rides the symbolism of his late wife or he gets to be measured and accountable for himself in this era of realpolitik. While disappointed hopefuls have suggested that Zardari should seek some major reinventing as the new president, the apologists have gone so far as to redefine him as the cause celebre of anti-patriarchal forces and challenger of misogyny in Pakistan. Given that misogyny in this country is expressed in some of the most primordial and torturous manner, this claim is nothing short of a joke.

It is not the first time this has been suggested. A few misinformed optimists have commented on the default feminism that informs Zardari’s new life. The matrilineal passing on of Benazir’s seat of power to her husband and surname to her children is an act that they claim symbolises the subversion of patriarchal and traditional, even feudal politics in Pakistan. However, the matrilineal tradition is selected to be vertically passed down from mother to son but not to a daughter. This changes patrilineal norms but not patriarchy.

Even if we ignore that feminism is not about how inheritance is distributed but rather a restructuring of all inequalities in society; gender, racial/ethnic and class, it is really stretching it to suggest Zardari’s ascent in to the presidency is some feminist act. The idea that gender roles are challenged simply if men pick up the mantle from women’s work/inheritance/power and carry it on, is simplistic and misplaced. It belittles the routine struggle of working women and privileged women alike, when it is men in the workplace and home who stand to gain most from women’s productive and reproductive labour. The comparison also reduces the seriousness of the fact that most women are systemically denied property rights which are appropriated by the men in their families – many are forced to marry against their will, or to an object or killed for this. To glorify how men derive from women’s power/property in this context is an irresponsible recommendation. Further, to stereotype reconciliation and compromise as evidence of ‘feminine’ qualities as opposed to rigid principled politics as aggressive male ones is plain absurd, in theory and historically.

That the late Benazir Bhutto was a target of misogyny, even from male members within her own party (including now, a hopefully remorseful Hussain Haqqani), is something the women’s movement has studied, documented and always stood against. At the same time, she was critiqued for political intolerance and not being feminist enough. But she stood up to all forms of public misogyny and shielded her family from any criticism. Any one who is honest, will remember the number of times they considered her husband a ‘liability’ to her office. Just because today he is poised for such a powerful office himself, does not mean we inject him with false qualities and humanistic purpose. That has to be earned, despite challenges, criticism and opposition. So far, by retaining all the power structures that enabled a dictatorial presidency, the opportunity to prove an alternative, non-hierarchical and trustworthy presidency is lost. We will have to hope rather than be confident, that promises are delivered, structures and relationships democratised and the presidency fills an over-due trust deficit. As far as defeating patriarchy is concerned, I wouldn’t hold my breath for this any time soon into the ‘decades-long democratic journey’ that we hope for. For now, let’s just hope that it gets beyond representative politics and power sharing/arrangements.

The writer is a rights activist and freelance contributor.Email: [email protected]

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