March Issue 2010
Interview: Sherry Rehman
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.
“It is actually possible to find cross-party support for women’s issues now”
– Sherry Rehman
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: It has always been a PPP government that has recognised women’s rights as a mainstream issue, not just for manifesto promises, but for executive and legislative action. Benazir Bhutto was the first PM who attempted to do away with anti-women laws such as karo-kari, and to set up a women’s employment and healthcare programme now known as the lady health worker’s programme, as well as a women’s bank and police stations. She also proactively appointed women judges. Her government, despite being a coalition, was the first to initiate the repeal of Hudood law punishments such as whipping, and to institute a women’s commission to review these laws.
This government’s record on women is so far very much in line with Benazir Bhutto’s ideology to empower women. Other than supporting women’s rights legislation, this government has gone against all norms by ensuring that all its social justice programmes like the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) and land-to-the-landless initiatives, target women as the key recipients.
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: That is not true at all. Women are known to utilise their parliamentary time much better than the average parliamentarian, and have actually introduced much more legislative business than men even in their first experience in parliament. Since women have assumed a critical mass of 21% in parliament, they have shifted the nature of mainstream political discourse to be more responsive to human rights issues.
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: Parliamentarians are certainly expected to vote along party lines, especially women who owe their seats to the party entirely. But in the PPP thankfully, as far as women’s issues are concerned, there has never been an occasion when the party manifesto has clashed with an issue we voted on, as the PPP has almost always taken the lead in introducing and championing women’s rights in the public mainstream. I did speak against the Nizam-i-Adal being enforced in Swat, after a woman was whipped in full public display somewhere in that area by enforcers of non-state law, but that too was reversed when extremists openly challenged the agreement they had signed with the ANP provincial government in Malakand.
Q: Have you succeeded in getting your male/female colleagues in parliament to support your stance on pro-women legislation?
A: Yes, I have been able to do that quite often because I think its important for women’s issues to not be marginalised, and until one’s male colleagues support one’s initiatives it will not have the numbers or traction needed to go through as a bill or a resolution. This NA particularly is better than the last one, perhaps because there is more sensitivity to gender rights than there was before, and also the nature of the house is not as reactionary as it was. It is actually possible to find cross-party support for women’s issues now, as the government also allows and encourages private member’s bills from the opposition to go to a committee and actually be used as legislation. This had never been the practice in the past, which invariably polarised all issues, including women’s issues, along purely party lines.
Q: Is the women parliamentary caucus set up in the present assembly making an impact? If yes, in what way?
A: You can’t go wrong with a women’s caucus, whatever you do, so yes, it is a good thing and does help to unite women on several issues. So far, it is restricted to capacity-building of women parliamentarians, but that too is very important, and must be encouraged.
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: Well, this does happen when tempers are charged, and even though its not an everyday occurrence at all, nor does it pass un-noticed, it leaves a strong stench of misogyny in the air. Whenever such remarks are made they are invariably expunged after a protest, but it does leave an ugly aftertaste. It also exposes those who make these remarks as people who only espouse women’s rights as a political slogan, perhaps to bring them to par with parties that have generally internalised a culture of women’s equality in their operations. Parties should have rules that temporarily suspend the membership of such MNAs and MPAs. It is clearly an anti-women bias, and not related to the process of indirect election that motivates such abuse, because one never hears of minority MPs on reserved seats being heckled on the basis of their mode of election, which is exactly the same process through which women are elected on reserved seats.
Q: Have you personally initiated the passage of any legislation designed to ameliorate the plight of women?
A: I initiated five bills in the last NA, which included the repeal of the Hudood Ordinances, ending impunity for ‘honour’ killings, an anti-domestic violence bill, an affirmative action bill that guaranteed up to 10% employment to women in the public sector, and an omnibus women’s bill that took the marriage age for girls up to 18, among other constitutional guarantees.
These bills created space for mainstream political discourse to shift towards terrain that legislatures had not really navigated before, except in earlier PPP governments, when Senator Iqbal Haider had introduced an ‘honour’ killings bill, only to find it roundly defeated in the senate, where the party did not have a majority. Things have changed a lot since then.
As minister for women development, a portfolio I held for three months, I initiated the Sexual Harassment at the Workplace Bill, which was just recently passed by the National Assembly, and has now been ratified by the senate.
Since the old Domestic Violence Bill has lapsed in the senate, I have just recently re-introduced it in the National Assembly.
Q: What other legislation/amendments to existing legislation vis-Ã -vis women would you want to see in place?
A: Obviously when one looks at the condition of women in South Asia, not just Pakistan, one can never be satisfied with any amount of legislation and executive action any government can take to empower women and to improve the status we have been accorded by years of illegitimate governments seeking to abuse religion. But I do feel that this government has championed a landmark law in the Sexual Harrasment Act, which has been hailed all over the region, and must be encouraged to pass other laws such as the Domestic Violence Bill, the Acid Abuse Bill and many others.
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: Anti-women lobbies and status quo actors persist in every legislature in the world, to shoot down or water down strong laws, but I have to say that a lot of credit is due to my fellow women parliamentarians, as well as some notable men who have become partners in such projects.
Sometimes the best just has to be made of a modified law, but without perseverance and tenacity, the whole project of empowering women through the legislatures can just lapse into an exercise in frustration. An example is the Domestic Violence Bill that I introduced more than five years ago. It met with stiff resistance from the government of the day. I kept re-introducing it in the NA until it was taken up by a treasury member, but once again it lapsed. It has literally been five years of trying, but one has to keep at it. I have re-introduced it one more time, and I am sure it will pass in the NA with government and coalition support.
Q: Also just enacting laws is not enough. Have you ever considered the enforcement aspect of these laws?
A: Of course, enacting laws is not enough. But laws are the first step in the institution of an empowering infrastructure of laws and customs. Enforcing laws is a much larger and more challenging proposition. As a parliament, we can make rules, create a penalty structure, enact specialised offices such as the women’s ombudsman I have suggested in the Sexual Harrasment Bill, and we do follow infractions of the law that are reported in the media or via constituents. The parliament is also used as a forum of accountability, especially in its standing committees, where many cases of abuse and crimes against women are brought, so it does create a broad vigilance mechanism.
But on the whole, the culture of punishing abuse of women cannot take root with just legislation. It needs a generation of behaviour change, media reinforcement, a vigilant executive and a sympathetic police. Adherence to women’s rights cannot be introduced by state fiat alone. It has to be matched by an equally strong effort by civil society and the media, which act as powerful watchdogs on state institutions.
Q: Are you satisfied with the mode of election of women MPs to the reserved seats for women in the legislatures?
A: Right now we have a closed party list system, which is almost the same as proportional representation as a mode of election. It is only the second time that women have been elected in such numbers to the legislatures through reserved seats, so it is a system that required some evolution. Naturally, merit can often be overlooked, as can services to the party, in a closed list, but until the last election, at least in the PPP, we did have many voices giving their input in the selection and ranking of members.
Read all five of the MNA interviews: