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Democracy, the women’s way

DEMOCRATISATION literature suggests that transitions to democracy can be rapid (and free), or gradual (‘pacted’ or result of a deal, usually based on elite-level negotiations).

While the hope is for a consolidated democracy at the end of any transition, sometimes they also get stuck in the ‘grey-zone’; that is, a hybrid system with the trappings of electoralism but not democratic in real terms.

To avoid this trap, commentators on both sides of the transition debate consider the continuity of Gen Musharraf’s presidency as an obstacle to the consolidation of quality democracy in the future. Thus his presence serves neither those who support a transitional process to democracy and definitely not those seeking rapid political change.

While the contending forces compete on this important structural issue, the critical question is whether we are moving towards an enduring genuine democracy or not. It is not merely whether political parties will co-habit, survive or break but rather the concern is over quality rather than stability. Is the new government going to qualitatively deliver democratic rights and be accountable in the process or not?

Particularly over the past year, non-state actors have garnered a renewed awareness and consciousness of their democratic needs and wishes. It is neither accurate not appropriate for party leaders to presumptuously announce that it was politicians and not the lawyers’ movement or civil society that pressed for a democratic regime change. This is petty and reveals lack of wisdom and historical amnesia over what makes for quality democracy. In fact, the representatives need to keenly and inclusively learn from these civil sectors to understand the demands for new visions of citizenship, rights and participation from the polity.

Historically, women activists have learned two hard lessons that transitions from dictatorial to democratic regimes have taught them. First, that their contributions to political change are often subsumed, if not outright rendered invisible, with regard to the ‘larger cause’ of a male-defined democracy. Second, that unless they consolidate and demand fast-track gender specific rights quickly in the post-transition period, they are unlikely to benefit from democratic spaces or opportunities in the long run.

Some argue that Gen Musharraf’s rule was a liberalised authoritarianism rather than an outright dictatorial regime. Still, we maintain that the reformist agenda of non-democratic regimes such as his are symbolically liberal, yet simultaneously help consolidate and deepen existing conservative gender relations.

Also, political rights have undoubted benefits in the long run for women’s equality, yet unless these are consolidated by women’s equal participation in policymaking, they remain merely tokenism. On this count then, under the Musharraf-Aziz government, women’s progress remained a presidential political whim rather than a substantive socio-economic policy for women’s empowerment.

Recognising that a truly gender-responsive democratic agenda would require both descriptive and substantive changes, the women’s movement and particularly the Women’s Action Forum (with its lived and documented experience of pro-democratic activism and struggle for women’s rights for nearly 30 years) is shifting its focus to a more pro-active and accountable government on women-specific issues.

The Karachi chapter of this secular organisation is in dialogue about setting an agenda for the legislators in Islamabad to take imminent policy decisions as part of their effort to institutionalise democratic norms. While the new government seeks corrective action against authoritarian wrongs on other issues, it must also urgently redefine the militaristic and patriarchal norms that have defined our democratic governments. Such a remedy has to go beyond the numerical or visible representation of women.

As politicians speak of institutional reform, the practical steps that must inform state machineries must be taken with a consciousness that under non-democratic regimes some suffer more than others. These groups – women, ethnic, provincial and religious minorities, persecuted and disappeared, those in conflict zones, victims of elite economic policies – must be a priority when formulating policy.

Given the proven record of a credible and respectable National Commission on the Status of Women, the fact that its recommendations were only partially taken up by the last government, merely diluted its strength and relevance. The movement insists the NCSW must become an autonomous and independent body. Its functioning should be broadened by mechanisms that retain its consultative role but also recognise it as a commissioner of proposals that should be followed fully in spirit and legislation.

Other pressing institutional recommendations from the women’s movement include recognition of the women’s ministry as a crucial centre that can redefine the very nature of democracy. Its policies should focus exclusively on equality of opportunity and participation of women. Sadly, women are often the first casualties of gender-blind social and economic policies in both authoritarian and democratic regimes. Ideally, instead of just one women’s ministry, there could also be ‘strategic cells’ within government departments that implement a national gender policy across the board.

This ministerial slot should no longer be considered a ‘soft’ post. A section of the women’s movement is proposing that credible associates of the progressive women’s movement, such as parliamentarian Bushra Gohar (ANP), be considered for this ministerial position. Soon after entering the parliament, Ms Gohar was seen taking her role in the women’s movement seriously, as she participated in a street protest against the recent implementation of a qazi order to stone to death a couple in Fata.

Experience shows that it is extremely difficult for women within mainstream parties to rise above party loyalties and challenge and pressurise their own (patriarchal) leadership on contentious issues. However, it is only courage such as this that can promise to deliver any semblance of progressive and democratic change.

There also needs to be clarification from all those who masqueraded as democrats over the past five years. The movement is calling upon all parties that comprised the MMA (particularly their women members who have held pro-Hudood ordinance demonstrations for the first time in Pakistan) to be held accountable for its miserable record on governance in the province.

The women’s movement has tirelessly campaigned for and supported a ‘critical mass’ of women’s representation in parliament. It is now time for us to see the difference that women (and men) with democratic credentials can bring to the quality of women’s equal rights and, hence, to sustained democratic rights in Pakistan.
Source: Dawn

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