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Sindhi women in politics

Bina Shah

A RECENT newspaper article casts light on a great problem women face in Sindh: the fact that traditional culture discourages women from entering the field of politics.

In ‘Female Politicians? Not on Our Watch, say Sardars’, Asad Pitafi examines the political culture in Ghotki, upper Sindh, and finds that despite there being a large number of political families active in the area, not one woman from these families has made it to the ranks of the provincial or national assemblies.

Women face the most hardline of social and cultural taboos on participating in any aspect of the public sphere in upper Sindh. A unique culture has developed there, where Pathans, Baloch and Sindhis hold the same repressive attitudes towards women despite their different ethnic backgrounds.

Part of this is due to the geographical isolation of the region where few outsiders venture bringing new ideas and exposure to different values, far from major cities and towns where schools and universities exist, and from where progressive attitudes might spread. And part of this is due to the extreme poverty and poor infrastructure of the area, which has excluded it from the technological advances, especially satellite television, which so often drive social and cultural change in rural Sindh.

The article quotes Babar Lund, a PPP Sindh Council member as saying, “We prefer traditional values. We can’t allow our women to break traditions that are centuries old… Our party manifesto highlights women empowerment, but I can’t allow my family women to come in assemblies.”

What an ironic statement coming from a member of the party which produced Benazir Bhutto, the only female national leader Pakistan has had! Sentiments like these and the absolute dismissal of women as part of the body politic in Pakistan are a huge betrayal of the legacy that Bhutto left behind for all women of this nation.

Pakistanis are very quick to trot out the fact that the country has had a female head of state before a developed nation like the United States, and Sindh remains very proud of Benazir Bhutto’s monumental life and courageous death, but in all reality most men in this province want her to remain an anomaly, rather than an example to their own women.

The climate for women in Pakistan is grim, as countless studies have shown, but unless women make it to the ranks of political parties and enter the assemblies, where they will have lawmaking power, how will legislation that helps women gain more ground — the bill against domestic violence to name a needed example — ever make it to the lawbooks?

After all, the Acid Attack Bill was passed recently in Pakistan’s National Assembly due to the multi-party efforts of women politicians, who joined forces across party lines to present the bill and then see it voted through.

And then, as if there wasn’t already a lack of female Sindhi representatives in government, there are those who criticise the fact that only women from highly influential Sindhi families make it into politics, connecting it to the reality that women at the grassroots level are denied the chance to make their voices heard, as if the inclusion of upper class women is the direct cause of the exclusion of the lower classes. The PML-N’s Marvi Memon, one of the few Sindhi women active in mainstream politics, has been quoted as saying: “It’s very easy to conduct politics from a reserved seat, but doing grassroots constituency politics for non-feudals is a huge challenge. Not many are insane enough to try.”

The truth is that women from all levels of Sindhi society are underrepresented in Pakistani government. Greater political opportunities do exist for women from the upper class, but their participation should not be derided or denied, especially in Sindh, with its dearth of women in politics.

Instead, any woman in politics should be applauded and encouraged because the spillover effects are huge and valuable: these influential Sindhi women have the means and the education to get involved in politics, and women from more deprived backgrounds take their cues once the barriers have been broken.

And in fighting for women’s rights, current Pakistani women representatives have proved that they are extremely aware of their more deprived sisters; after all, it was upper class women who legislated successfully against acid attacks, a crime that affects many more women from lower socioeconomic levels than higher ones.

Even amongst the urban upper classes, or the tribals and sardars, there exist a variety of viewpoints, and many such Sindhi families have not just permitted but also supported their women in the political field. In the remote parts of the province, Ghotki included, Sindhi women themselves have to step forward and claim their rightful place in the political sphere, regardless of the regressive, patriarchal traditions that would like to see them hidden away, out of sight and out of mind. The change cannot be forced upon them from the outside; it must be homegrown in order to remain authentic and long-lasting.

Sindhi women have to decide that it is their right as Pakistani citizens to emulate the work of historically renowned women politicians: Fatima Jinnah, Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan, Fauzia Wahab and Benazir Bhutto, to name a few who also had to face conservative attitudes in order to participate in national politics.

Only once Sindhi women rediscover their courage will the land of the seven queens that Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai immortalised in his verse not hold women back in any sphere, least of all politics, just to maintain the masculine illusion of honour.

The writer is the author of Slum Child.