February issue 2002
Powerful or Powerless?
In the Frontier, where purdah is seen as a part of one’s code of honour, the entry of Pushtun women in the public arena of politics in a large number has, indeed, been a revolutionary move. The allocation of 33 per cent seats for women under the devolution plan is a symbolic gesture towards the empowerment of women, especially in the NWFP. Although the number of women entering politics has shot up, it remains to be seen whether they will be in a position to bring about any meaningful change in the status of women.
In the past, at the time of elections in a village not only were women under-registered but casting votes was also discouraged. In areas where polling stations were situated at a distance, the families preferred to keep their women at home, away from strangers. When taken to a polling station to cast votes, they were usually told whom to vote for by the men.
However, throughout the recent local bodies election campaign, women fought against social pressures. Some worked clad in a burqa, others clad in chadors.
The concept of women participating in the elections was largely perceived as an unconventional step by the society. A Pushtun lady councillor terms it as purdah maatawal or ‘shunning the code of purdah.’
The candidates travelled from door to door, pleading for a much needed change. Some even had to face strong resistance from either the parents or the in-laws.
Affaf Rehman, a female councillor from the Union Council of Hazarkhwani, relates how her paternal cousins came to her father’s Hujra to taunt him for allowing her to bring shame to the family honour. The men of her family saw the act of having her photo displayed on the election posters as a rebellious act. Affaf, who has also been a successful lawyer, has handled cases free of cost for rural women. She has played a vital role in making them aware of their legal rights.
Another lady councillor from Bahadar Town still hasn’t been able to appease her father who was opposed to the idea of her taking part in the elections. She had no prior experience of politics. She was the first female from her family to break the strict code of purdah by entering what was culturally perceived being as a male preserve.
According to some female councillors, there were many factors that led them to enter an unknown field. They were told that once elected, they would be given offices and salaries. They were also told that they would mostly have to deal with women’s problems and would be in a position to help them. They were breaking a strict code of purdah in order to achieve power and authority.
Nearly five months have passed and they realise that they are still being expected to work voluntarily. They have also become conscious of the fact that they have no powers to exercise, let alone having their demands or proposals accepted. They are given a chair each at the Nazim’s office, which village women rarely visit because of the presence of a large number of men. And even if they do, they refrain from discussing their personal problems in the presence of men.
The lady councillor from Sheikhaan has been striving to get permission from the relevant authorities to shift a school examination centre for girls to her village. There is no high school in Sheikhaan and the girls do not get permission from their families to travel to centres that are located in distant areas. Hence they approached the lady councillors who, since then, have been shuttling from one Nazim to another relevant authority. “Nothing seems to change, no one seems to listen,” she laments.
“Women in my constituency are largely uneducated. All they know is that they are expected to bear countless children,” says Nasim Akhtar. In her village, women do not use iodised salt. It is seen as a trap by the government to reduce population by adversely affecting the fertility of women.
In spite of such misconceptions, women have been seeking the help of their newly elected representatives. However, with the passing of each day, their faith in the elected lady councillors is fading.
Nahid Asif complains that the people from her area do not want to spend money on their daughters. They would send their sons to colleges in Peshawar but avoid spending on their daughters’ education.
There is a strong feeling of helplessness and disappointment among the women councillors from the NWFP. Women representatives have plans and proposals for the uplift of the women of their respective areas but no one seems to pay heed to what they have to say.
Safia Naz, who was a leading figure in planning a protest in the local bodies assembly session in Peshawar, complains, “We are called to meetings in five-star hotels in order to add colour to the function. When we give suggestions or opinions no one is willing to listen to us. Even if they do, they are not willing to act upon it. On the face of it we have been empowered but in reality things have yet to change for the better.”
Even though a large number of women got elected as councillors from all over the province, the elected female representatives have already begun to doubt the government’s intentions. Some women are of the view that the government wants their visible presence in order to impress the west and obtain financial aid, which will be spent on roads and bridges rather than the upliftment of women.
Such disillusionment has led to many protests throughout the province. Women councillors of district Mansehra and the tehsil council of Ooghi expressed their resentment over their powerlessness. They also resented the fact that they are not even provided transport facilities to visit or check the areas that need attention. When the budget of their respective councils was made they were not consulted.
Lady councillors from Abbotabad also staged a walkout from the assembly hall as a sign of resentment against non-allocation of funds for the welfare of women in the approved district budget.
The protest planned by the lady councillors from Peshawar failed to materialise because some women members backed out. The rest were not allowed to speak. The moment they would start to plead their case, the rest of the members would shout, “Shame! Shame!” The female councillors were criticised for bickering with the authorities merely over salary.
“It is not a matter of salary, but the unrealistic expectations from us,” says a lady councillor. Several of them have already stopped attending the sessions. In the last session in Peshawar, only one female representative was present. The rest opted to stay home.
Pushtun women, like their counterparts throughout the country, entered the field of politics with high hopes and expectations but they have been relegated to the sidelines by their colleagues. It is important that they be made to feel that they have been the agents of change and transformation. Their opinion is more important than their mere visibility on formal occasions.
If the policy makers are indeed serious about empowering them, they will have to think of some practical steps to bring about a change from within. Women have to be part of the decision-making process too. There are effective decision-makers concealed behind the all enveloping burqas or chadors, who can emerge only if they are given a real chance.