No protest for women?

November 17, 2019

JUI-F came under scrutiny over exclusion of women from their street politics

While political drama in the country’s federal capital kept political pundits guessing about the outcome of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam Fazl’s (JUI-F) protest, it managed also to spark a controversy regarding political inclusion. Reports of women journalists being barred from covering the JUI-F sit-in in Islamabad escalated into demands from journalists regarding rights of their female colleagues. But while later the party leaders were seen instructing their workers to not stop women journalists from doing their professional duties, the issue raised the larger question of the party’s position regarding women participation in public and political space.

“It is a not a new thing for me. They are against the participation of women in practical politics and this protest is a reflection of that thought,” says Khushbakht Shujaat of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement. She says in democratic systems numbers matter and going by that argument, excluding women from politics is not even an option in third world countries. She says the Election Commission of Pakistan had finally taken tangible measures to ensure women’s right to vote and all political parties, including the JUI-F, were bound to respect that.

Dr Muhammad Mujeeb Afzal, assistant professor at the School of Politics and International Relations Quaid i Azam University, Islamabad is of the view that the dharna is just a collective of the opposition to demand a restructuring of the democratic system. Women participation or lack thereof is a debate that comes later, he adds.

Women play an essential role in true democracies, he says, adding that Pakistan is a controlled democracy. “Women’s role in politics cannot be eliminated but it may be restricted if religio-political parties come into power.” There was no democracy under which women acted independently, he says. “They were always under a controlled autonomy,” he says. “There is only one way to end this and that is through vote. Such political parties come into power if women don’t vote.”

Senator Pervaiz Rasheed believes that over time all progressive, moderate, and secular political parties have been pushed out. “Take for example, the Awami League. To get rid of this moderate political party, we lost East Pakistan,” says the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz senior leader. “There was another progressive political party, the National Awami Party, which believed in politics of equality. Today, we rarely hear about it.”

Speaking about two mainstream political parties, the Pakistan Peoples Party and the PML-N, he says they too have been sidelined. “When we have eliminated all progressive and moderate political voices then who will replace them? Extreme right wing and religio-political parties,” he says.

Nasim Zehra is one of the women journalists who made their way to the sit-in site in Islamabad. “Women are moving ahead and will continue strengthening their position in the country and its politics,” she says adding there is no point remaining in denial about it. Zehra says the JUI-F may regret keeping their women away from practical politics in the coming days.

Senator Krishna Kohli of the PPP says women have served in important positions in Pakistan and Benazir Bhutto was one such example. “If we cannot provide space to women in politics yet keep demanding sustainability of democracy, we might as well keep our desires of a healthy political system aside.”

JUI-F leader Shahida Akhtar Ali says her party never barred women from participating in the protest. Ali says women are participating in their protest indirectly adding that their activities are not exposed to media. The JUI-F leader says everything is clearly defined in the JUI-F dastoor (constitution), including participation of women in politics. The party’s policy with regards to women’s rights has been a matter of contention in various circles. In 2018, in a paradigm shift from past practices to keep women disenfranchised, JUI-F launched a full-scale campaign to bring women voters to polling stations in the General Elections 2018.

Ali says she visited the dharna venue and attended meetings, refuting the impression that JUI-F women are barred from participating in protest. She mentions that she has also participated in various television programs on behalf of her party, saying it was an ample proof that the JUI-F is a religio-political party that supports women’s participation in politics.

Abdul Ghafoor Haideri says there is a strong women wing in the JUI-F. Speaking about the lack of women participation, he says their women supporters were at homes praying for the success of the protest. “We think they are very important for the JUI-F’s struggle,” he adds. “We have women in assemblies, which is reflective of JUI-F’s ideology regarding women participation in elections. Women are not missing in the politics of JUI-F. That’s a wrong perception.”

The writer is an investigative journalist based in Islamabad and a PhD aspirant.

She tweets @shizrehman

Azadi March and female journalists: No protest for women?