Disconnecting narratives

February 8, 2015

From the point of view of a woman, Syeda Abida Hussain’s political journey has been a heroic struggle and a brave one

Disconnecting narratives

Two aspects stand out very glaringly while going through the book which Syeda Abida Hussain has penned on her political life. One, the disconnect which exists between the reality of her politics at the local level and the political choices that she made on the national platform and two, the tone with which the narrative braces itself.

From the days when her father Syed Abid Hussain fought his last election in 1970, the reality or the ugly reality of sectarian divide being a fundamental issue has been the scourge of local politics and the focus of electioneering in the constituencies where he and then his daughter contested, whether for local, provincial or national seats.

It appears from her narrative, as indeed is clear to anyone with even a cursory understanding of politics, that the sectarian divide or its fallout has been becoming greater with every election or every other event of national importance. It probably became more acute and also vociferously advocated during the years that the Afghan war was being fought from the Pakistani soil, with the funding coming from all sorts of sources that justified that kind of military and armed resistance in Afghanistan. As a result, the sectarian outfits were strengthened, either directly or indirectly, as their reading of religion was accepted as legitimate for conducting politics in the region.

Abida Hussain became a victim of the acceptance of that narrative in the politics of the country but she was brave enough to resist, fight and confront it and at times was able to partially overshadow it through her electoral victories. Her narrative, in other words, prevailed over the others, and was a cause of some respite.

Being in the local, provincial or national corridors of power was a matter of comfort but then, ironically there was no effort made to counter the damaging narrative. If the problem was that endemic and decisive then the entire struggle should have been focused on mending fences within the extended family or the sect itself or of forging some kind of a unity and then pitching for a battle to be fought jointly. What one finds, instead, are choices being informed by narrow electoral gains, the exigencies of power politics and the desire to win at all cost. The principled thrust was as if left by the wayside. Factionalism of pitching one against the other did not help; rather it helped the opponents in not only strengthening their base but also justifying themselves as being supported by the general public as well. It ended up being an endorsement of their brand of politics.

Most of the spaces that have been made available for women in politics have been taken up by women from influential backgrounds who were nominated to these highly visible positions meant to showcase the progress of women in the country.

Even when she won or was holding an office in the government, whether as a minister or an ambassador, the demands of that office monopolised all her time and activities and her eyes were as if taken away from the grim reality of her constituency and its overriding factor in the politics of the Punjab, as indeed of all the country. There too one fails to detect any concerted effort to counter the argument that was proving to be divisive for the society on the whole.

In the end, she just comes out to be one of the many politicians or political players that characterised the way politics is carried out in Pakistan. It is marred by the frequent cloak and dagger acts, shifting of loyalties, changing of political parties and infidelity in being steadfast to a cause. It has been more about co-option and compromise rather than hardcore struggle for a greater cause. All this has brought a bad name to politics where even buying votes and positions have not known to happen very infrequently.

If seen from the point of view of a woman hers has been a very heroic struggle and a brave one. She made a name and carved a place for herself being a woman who was not once but repeatedly elected on general seats in a country where women were and are still called names if they appear in public.

She took her own decisions and was her own person. She encountered the most resistance from her own and the extended family as others members, citing examples from convention did not want her to take part in outdoor life. A Syedzadi or saidani, rather stayed within the four walls of the house, working through her men folks but in that she was lucky to have a husband who was understanding and did not create unnecessary hurdles for her.

The account is quite revealing about the difficulties that women face in public life, more so if they happen to be elected by the people, even if they happen to be born with entitlement and have a family constituency to draw upon. In her case it was doubly difficult because she was an exceptionally good looking woman with airs of a filmstar.

Where it proved to be advantageous was also responsible for her being treated merely as a pretty face meant for embellishment and adornment in a very male dominated power outfit.

Most of the spaces that have been made available for women in politics have been taken up by women from influential backgrounds who were nominated to these highly visible positions meant to showcase the progress of women in the country. Even those with privileged backgrounds shied away from facing the election grind. Abida Hussain should be credited with a few others who took the plunge and showed that this too was achievable even in a country as conservative as Pakistan.

Not surprisingly for the daughter her father is the hero and some others like Raja Sahib Mahmudabad who bankrolled project Pakistan with their own resources and now sadly forgotten receive kinder treatment. Otherwise the tone of her narrative is highly supercilious and at times borders on contempt for most others. The book has many factual errors and better editing could have helped immeasurably.

Power Failure
Author: Syeda Abida
Publisher: Oxford University Press Pakistan, 2014
Pages: 707
Price: PKR2195

Disconnecting narratives