The Awami National Party doesn't support any agreements written or otherwise that deny women the right to vote and/or participate in the elections
‘The Kohistan incident made it clear that NGOs do not generally base their positions on facts on the ground. Their positions are easily swayed by media hype and the expectations of others.’ Says MNA Bushra Gohar. She is Pakistan’s leading politician. She is currently serving as the Senior Vice-President of the Awami National Party. In an interview with Viewpoint, she discusses status of the Pakhtun women. Read on:
How patriarchal is traditional Pakhtun society? Where is the line that distinguishes Pakhtonwali (Pashtoon code) from fundamentalism?
Traditional Pakhtun social norms are largely patriarchal and discriminatory in nature. The male elder of a family is assigned the role of head of the family and is the main decision maker regarding major family related issues and concerns. Women in the family are relegated to a secondary position in the household and in the community and are rarely consulted in major decisions even those that directly concern them. In traditional Pakhtun society women are denied the right to inheritance, and other basic rights such as education and the right to contest election or vote. Women do not count. A wife is typically referred to in some traditional Pakhtun societies as "Kadda" or baggage and are considered to be the responsibility of the male member. Violence against women is generally tolerated and considered a way of life. However, there are instances in Pakhtun history where women have actively participated in Jirgas-council of elders.
Fundamentalism is the antithesis of Pakhtunwali, the Pakhtun code that defines & determines the characteristics of a Pakhtun society rooted in religious tolerance and pluralism. Pakhtun society assigns a distinct but separate role to the mosque from the hujra or the social and economic roles and is thus highly secular in nature.
How did great secular and popular Pakhtun leaders like Bacha Khan and Wali Khan view the role of women in their political movements?
Fakhre Afghan (Pride of Afghans) Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and Rahbar-e-Tehreeq (leader of the Movement) Khan Abdul Wali Khan regarded women as equal members in their political movements. Bacha Khan was always concerned about the status of women in Pakhtun society and worked hard to raise awareness about women’s equal rights and opportunities. He envisioned Pakhtun women as active participants in social, economic and political spheres. Bacha Khan practiced what he preached, starting with his own family. Bacha Khan also believed in the equality of men and women within the household. According to him "Men and Women should be equally educated in housework because home belongs to both."
How do you explain, as a Pakhtun woman, women’s role in traditional Pakhtun society? Is it really as miserable as the media and NGOs describe?
Where women are concerned, traditional Pakhtun society is full of contradictions. As an insider, I would say that women have to struggle very hard for basic rights . They have to make huge sacrifices in the process and often face dire consequences. On the other hand , women receive respect in the society and are protected by the severe Pakhtun code. As a woman politician I find myself perfectly at home in huge crowds of Pakhtun men as they accept me as an equal member. I have also found Pakhtun men most respectful of working women. Of course the media and NGOs highlight or exaggerate the worst in any society.
How effective are CSOs (Civil Society Organisations) and NGOs in raising awareness about women issues in Pukhtoon society considered socially conservative?
The CSOs have played a significant role in identifying and highlighting women's issues in the country. As a result of their efforts much pro women legislation has been instituted and policies and procedures have evolved. However, the focus of much of their activity is largely driven by short term project objectives and at the surface level often remain disconnected from realities on the ground. The framing of political issues as “projects,” the approach adopted by the CSOs, has contributed to the trivialization of sensitive issues and the de -politicization of our society.
Do you believe in segregating women in politics as Musharaf has done or in political parties having women wings, rather than including women as equal participants?
I do not believe that women should be segregated in politics or in any sphere of life. I am strongly opposed to women’s wings. They end up further marginalizing women in politics. Awami National Party does not have a women's wing. Since its inception, under the guidance of Bacha Khan, it has included women as equal members at all levels in the political mainstream. Under Asfandyar Wali Khan's leadership, significant steps have been taken to bring women into mainstream decision making at all levels within the party. The ANP's election manifesto is very gender sensitive and the party works hard to achieve these commitments.
What role do you envision for Pakhtun women in the global village?
When given the opportunity, Pakhtun women have demonstrated their strengths in every sphere of life. It is unfortunate that they have been kept out of the mainstream on flimsy grounds that use tradition, culture and/or religion to marginalize them. Others speak on their behalf when in fact women themselves are better advocates for their rights. Despite the incredible barriers encountered by Pakhtun women, they continue to demonstrate a great sense of purpose. I see an increasing role being played by these women in the global peace efforts.
You highlighted the Kohistan incident. You deserve our praise for that. But don’t you think that there is a problem with NGO-style advocacy. It seems NGOs pushed conservatives to perceive modernity as an attack on their culture? It reminds one of the ‘communists reforms’ in the 1970s Afghanistan. Isn’t it?
The Kohistan incident made it clear that NGOs do not generally base their positions on facts on the ground. Their positions are easily swayed by media hype and the expectations of others. They lack credible systems for verifying facts. Their approach to addressing sensitive issues remains highly superficial, piecemeal and self projectionist. None of the issues taken up by the NGOs can be addressed effectively without a holistic approach and long term commitments.
What in your opinion can substantially and effectively raise the status of women in Pakhtun tribes? What is ANP’s policy in this regard?
Women's status will be raised when women achieve access to quality education and they are assured of participation in decision making at all levels. ANP continues to focus on the improvement of access to high quality education in the province. It doubled the budget for education for the current year. ANP also continues to play a significant role in pro womens rights legislation and the nomination of women to key decision making positions. Through the 18th constitutional amendment , education has been made a fundamental right, ensuring that the State is responsible for education for all. However the ANP faces challenges in ensuring the safety of schools as well as the task of rebuilding schools that were destroyed by the floods of 2010 or blown up by militants.
Killings of singers Ghazala Javaid and Fareeda Afridi are alarming. How is Khyber Pakhtoonkwhwa province better under ANP government in this regard than it was under the religious alliance, MMA that ruled the province 2002-2007?
I don't see how a comparison between ANP and MMA can be made by citing the two gruesome incidents. There is no doubt that women are at high risk of violence because of religious extremism, bigotry, discriminatory laws and a weak justice system. However, under the ANP government their freedoms are not curtailed by the State and they are ensured equal rights and opportunity. We still have a long and arduous struggle ahead of us to bring women at par and to eliminate all forms of discrimination against them.
ANP has recently promised Local Bodies polls before general elections. Will you? If yes, what about women representation? Also, how will you ensure women representation and participation in view of incidents where in some districts women were banned from voting?
ANP has presented a plan for the Local Bodies (LB) polls and is making preparations for it. I don't see any reason why it should not be able to keep its word. The new LB law passed by the Provincial Assembly allows for women to come on the general seats as well as on seats reserved for women.
In some constituencies even PPP and ANP joined hands with fundamentalists to ban women from voting. How do you describe ANP's position vis-a-vis this sort of local alliances to exclude women? If you remember the Kohistan by election?
The Awami National Party doesn't support any agreements written or otherwise that deny women the right to vote and/or participate in the elections. Party's Central President, Mr. Asfandyar Wali Khan issued a statement pre 2008 elections that the party members must make extra effort to ensure women are able to participate actively in the elections process. He warned party office bearers of strict action if found involved in any agreements that excluded women from the process. He has reiterated Party's commitment to women's participation in mainstream political process and decision making in all Party meetings. However, agreements among local members or contestants of political parties including ANP local members have taken place in the bye elections in some districts. The Party has taken notice of this, for example in District Shangla bye elections a show cause was issued to members who had participated in an agreement and party membership of 12 members, found involved in banning women from voting, was revoked after internal investigation. In this instance although all local chapters of political parties were involved only ANP took stringent action.
It is unfortunate that parties with otherwise disparate ideologies, readily unite on a common platform when it comes to banning women from voting. Several reasons other than tradions, have been cited for this which need urgent attention especially from the Election Commission. I have taken the issue up in the National Assembly and the Election Commission calling for declaring elections on all polling stations null and void where registered women voters are not allowed to vote due to local agreements and/or under the pretence of traditions. I had called for the Kohistan elections to be declared null and void as women were denied their right to vote.
In the Shangla case, there was also sufficient evidence that Election Commission's staff were also complicit and/or complacent. The Women Parliamentary Caucus has held meetings with the Election Commission to work on amendments in the existing law to ensure women's right to vote. Meanwhile, the existing law, rules and procedures give sufficient powers to the Election Commission to take action against the culprits.
|The writer is an engineer and working in Saudi Arabia.|