March Issue 2010
Interview: Bushra Gohar
As part of Newsline‘s cover story “One Step Forward” on women parliamentarians and their effect on the status of women in Pakistan, we interviewed five female MNAs to find out what progress has been made in gender rights.
“Every government has consistently compromised, skirted around or taken a weak position on women’s concerns in order to appease the religious extremist groups and parties”
– Bushra Gohar
Q: Which government, in your view, has been the most woman-friendly in terms of gender-sensitive policies? State the reasons for your choice?
A: I don’t believe there has been any government, democratic or otherwise, that has seriously considered women’s issues as a priority and taken steps to ensure equality of rights, social protection and elimination of discrimination against women as per the constitution and international obligations. Every government has consistently compromised, skirted around or taken a weak position on women’s concerns in order to appease the religious extremist groups and parties. However, one must recognise that Benazir Bhutto’s second government made some significant headway in bringing the issue of women’s development and rights to the national political agenda following the Beijing Conference in 1994.
Q: It is generally believed that the increase in the number of women parliamentarians is mere tokenism and that a woman’s voice is generally not heeded. Is that so?
A: It is too early to say if women who have made it to parliament, especially through reserved seats, are having an impact. However, it would not be too presumptuous to say that it is women who are driving the National Assembly’s proceedings by raising key questions and passing resolutions, adjournment motions etc. Women parliamentarians have been at the forefront of legislative business as well. The women parliamentarians’ presence helps maintain quorum. Further, in the 2008 elections, a majority of the political parties gave tickets to women who had a political track record for both general and reserved seats rather than family relations and/or associations with party leadership. The National Assembly speaker has also set a trend of providing equal opportunity to women to participate in key debates. Also, political parties are increasingly relying on women parliamentarians for taking up key issues on the floor of the house and in the standing committees, where the main deliberations take place. Women parliamentarians are also actively building consensus on key legislation related to women’s and children’s rights through their representation in the women’s parliamentary caucus led by the speaker.
Q: Parliamentarians are expected to vote along party lines. If your party’s vote conflicts with your interests as a woman, what would be your response?
A: Political parties generally follow stated principles and policies when voting on a particular matter. Voting on critical issues is almost always preceded by a debate within the party to come to a consensus. The Awami National Party (ANP) gives serious consideration to my views on critical matters. I have never felt constrained in any way in expressing my views within the party forums because of the party’s long-standing culture of open debate on critical issues. However, if there is ever a serious conflict of interest and I find that I have exhausted all avenues within the party and if, despite every effort, I find the outcome is a compromise I could not accept, I would resign.
Q: Have you succeeded in getting your male/female colleagues in parliament to support your stance on pro-women legislation?
A: It is an uphill struggle but I must say we have made some progress, especially with the support of other women parliamentarians and the party leadership.
Q: Is the women’s parliamentary caucus set up in the present assembly making an impact? If yes, in what way?
A: The women’s parliamentary caucus is a key forum for getting women to build a common understanding on issues related to women and build consensus on these issues across party lines. I feel it needs to continue building a proactive role in taking up discriminatory legislation and policy matters.
Q: Are stories of woman parliamentarians being heckled and not given a chance to speak on the ground that they have come on reserved seats very commonplace?
A: There is a general feeling both inside and outside parliament that women elected on reserved seats are not equal to those who have come through direct elections. There have been statements made by members on the floor of the house which make a distinction between members on general and reserved seats. Many senior politicians from the main political parties have openly called women parliamentarians on reserved seats as coming on ‘khairati’ seats.
Q: Have you personally initiated the passage of any legislation designed to ameliorate the plight of women?
A: I must say there has been a collective effort by women parliamentarians to get key legislation concerning women i.e. Domestic Violence Bill, Harassment at Workplace etc, unanimously passed in the National Assembly. I have also personally initiated four legislations pertaining to women, children and minority rights and protection.
Q: Are you satisfied with the legislation enacted by this government? What other legislation/amendments to existing legislation vis-Ã -vis women would you want to see in place?
A: The process of enacting legislation vis-Ã -vis women has been tedious with unnecessary impediments and delays. No doubt, some good legislation has been enacted that would have a positive impact on the lives of women; however, until all the discriminatory laws of the Zia era are removed from the statute books, I will not be satisfied.
Q: There is a common perception that all pro-woman legislation is either shot down or watered down to meet the demands of the conservative and feudal lobby in parliament. If true, is there any way to fight this?
A: There are many compromises made to get everyone on board. I never realised that even the mention of a woman on a bill would be considered taboo as it would hurt the sensitivities of some right-wing coalition partners. The struggle for basic rights for women continues …
Q: Also just enacting laws is not enough. Have you ever considered the enforcement aspect of these laws?
A: I feel the standing committees’ oversight role has to be strengthened to ensure effective enforcement of laws.
Q: Are you satisfied with the mode of election of women MPs to the reserved seats for women in the legislatures?
A: No. I feel that we need to work on a modality to get women directly elected on the reserved seats. This would give them direct contact with the voters and prepare them for the next step of coming on general seats and increase their accountability vis-Ã -vis the public.
Read all five of the MNA interviews: