April Issue 2008
Interview: Dr Fehmida Mirza
“I hope there will be dignified debate in parliament”
-Fehmida Mirza, speaker of the National Asssembly
When Pakistan Peoples Party parliamentarian Dr Fehmida Mirza took oath as the speaker of the National Assembly on March 19, 2008, she made world headlines as she is the first woman to earn this distinction in Pakistan and in the Muslim world. Her victory is also special for there are only 29 countries around the world that can boast women parliamentary speakers, of which half come from Latin America and the Caribbean. Dr Mirza, who has managed a ‘hat-trick’ in open electoral contests by accumulating three straight victories from her Badin constituency, is determined to deliver as the new custodian of the House.
One is immediately struck by the lady’s elegance and eloquence, as well as her amazing resemblance to the late former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto.
The 51-year-old speaker has widely been likened to Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto and dubbed as the ‘Nancy Pelosi of Pakistan’ (the US House of Representatives speaker). She takes the comparison as a compliment and an honour. And, not surprisingly, throughout the rushed interview Dr Fehmida Mirza kept remembering, with pain and nostalgia, her “leader and friend” Benazir Bhutto, who has been her inspiration. She kept thinking of how proud and happy Benazir Bhutto would have been, even as she took oath as the speaker.
On the day Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani sought a vote of confidence, her chambers in the parliament wore the look of an ‘open house.’ It was inundated by visitors from her constituency and MNAs. Some were there to congratulate her and others had odd requests, ranging from accommodation to time on the floor. The speaker kept switching languages — from Urdu to Sindhi to English — as she interacted with different people. “This is what we call the Hyderabad mafia!” joked a senior journalist, as she conversed in Sindhi with some acquaintances from Hyderabad. Hard- pressed for time because of the obligations of her new job, she told a visitor: “I am not answering my mobile phone anymore.”
It was evident that ‘Madam Speaker’ was keen to be briefed on all the issues that she had to deal with, including the media’s concerns and the housing problems of the newly-elected members of the National Assembly. Tea and biscuits kept pouring in for the guests as pleasantries were being exchanged and Dr Mirza faced queries from all quarters. Men were clearly in a minority and seemed a bit awkward in the presence of so many women parliamentarians from the PPP and the opposition parties, who were comfortably ensconced in the speaker’s chambers. Farahnaz Ispahani, Fizza Junejo, Farzana Raja and Kashmala Tariq were among those present. Women MNAs from the opposition parties had no hesitation in admitting that they were thrilled that a woman parliamentarian was now in the speaker’s chair.
Dr Mirza is, at the moment, one of the most sought after figures in the country. Diplomats in Islamabad and almost all visiting dignitaries and members of civil society are keen to have an audience with her. So, for her it’s a constant race against time. Despite the growing demands on her time and space, she remains cool, patient and accommodating.
A seasoned politician, she seemed tactful in her interactions, courteous and fully conscious of the responsibility that rests on her shoulders.
“I am sorry but I’ll be called any minute,” she cautioned me at the outset of the interview, which she was kind enough to squeeze in when the assembly proceedings had been adjourned for prayers.
Q: When were you informed about your nomination for speakership?
A: Just a week before the announcement was made. The decision to appoint a woman speaker had been made, so I was told that it was going to be me because I had come through general elections and it is my third term in parliament.
Q: What was your initial reaction?
A: I was reluctant because it is a big responsibility. And when I take up any job, I take it seriously and I have to deliver.
Q: Did you have prior indications from the late Ms Bhutto that she wanted a woman parliamentarian as a speaker?
A: She always wanted women in high positions. But because she was going to be the prime minister, we could not have had a woman prime minister and a woman speaker [at the same time]. However, after her assassination, the party wanted to give this position to a woman.
Q: How do you feel when you are compared to Nancy Pelosi and Benazir Bhutto?
A: It’s a great feeling and I am honoured. Even in my constituency, I was always compared to Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto.
Q: Do you think the tone of the proceedings in the House would be any different with a woman parliamentarian in the speaker’s chair?
A: Yes. I think and I hope that there will be dignified debate and there will be no unparliamentary language used as it has been in the past. Also, I feel with more tolerance and patience, there will be order in the House and the members will maintain decorum.
Q: What specific steps would you take to ensure fair-minded custodianship of the House?
A: Give representation to all the political parties, whether sitting on the treasury or the opposition benches — and to women parliamentarians. I would recommend that all political parties encourage women to speak on different issues and give, at least, one of the three supplementary questions to them during the question hour.
Q: How does it feel to be the woman speaker in a House with an overwhelming majority of male members?
A: It’s a very good feeling. But bear in mind the fact that I have come through the general elections, and there I totally forget that I am a woman.
Q: As a doctor and an industrialist, what inspired you to come into politics?
A: I come from a political background and this is what I have seen all my life. Like Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto said: “I didn’t choose this life, it chose me.”
Q: What do you think is the biggest challenge you face as the speaker of the lower House?
A: I want to see the parliament sovereign. I want to see supremacy of the parliament and I just hope and I want that every institution should work according to the Constitution and, hopefully, inshaallah (interrupted by an MNA)…
Q: How has becoming the National Assembly speaker changed your life?
A: It’s just been four days and it’s not sinking in at the moment except for the fact that I have not been able to see my children and I’m working late hours with tons of work and a lot of responsibility. And I hope I can live up to expectations.
Q: How does your family feel about it?
A: They are very happy and they are very proud. They have always…(the conversation was interrupted again, this time by a well-wisher who had come all the way from Karachi to give her mubarikbad. Just a minute later, the speaker was given a signal by her staff that the members of the National Assembly had reassembled after the break). “Sorry I have to rush now,” Dr Mirza said, as we wrapped up the interview.