How many times have women been told to stay within ‘limits’ – that are almost always set by men? How many times have Pakistan’s women – from the regular woman right up to women in powerful positions – been told they must either remain quiet or speak only in a language that is seemly for women, or better yet not be seen altogether if their sight makes people uncomfortable? Ask any woman in this country and – hand on heart – you will find very few that will not relate to these moral proscriptions handed out on a regular basis to women. Perhaps it was this that triggered the very welcome response from a spectrum of women politicians in parliament to JI MNA Abdul Akbar Chitrali’s statement – misogynist at best – criticizing Hina Rabbani Khar for having led a recent delegation to Kabul.
Chitrali had taken the floor of the House to chastise the government for sending Khar – Pakistan’s state minister for foreign affairs – to Kabul as lead of the delegation, asking why a woman was sent, why someone ‘senior’ was not sent, and insisting that sending her would have had an overall negative effect on those in Kabul. Naturally, unpacking Mr Chitrali’s statement doesn’t require much philosophy, given that such ideology holds strong in a country clutching fiercely to patriarchal structures. What was heartening though, a silver lining in an otherwise disappointing exchange, was how women from the treasury benches rose to not only defend Khar but also to remind their colleagues that women are no props to be used during election time or when the state wants to look liberal enough. Women have come a long way in politics. Where there was one Fatima Jinnah or Benazir Bhutto, there are now all manner of women joining politics, contesting elections, heading ministries, making policy – and leading delegations to a Taliban-run Kabul. From Minister Sherry Rahman to Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb to Minister Shazia Marri – powerful voices speaking up in defiance of such mindsets is what will help break the fragile-but-remaining glass ceiling.
Whether it is politics of respectability that insist on setting limits on women’s speech, clothes, movement or politics of pandering to right-wing concerns regarding women’s visibility, the woman question cannot be relegated to secondary status any longer. There is no room for these discriminations within modernity. For Pakistan to excel in diplomacy, politics and governance, the women in the public sphere need to be accepted for their competence not shunned for their gender. We have already seen those at the top tiers of government only a few years back try and moralize over what counts as the right kind of clothes for women. We have only recently seen a member of the opposition taunt women ministers by advising them to work at salons. In all this they forget that not only is Pakistan a whole lot younger in terms of demographics but the workforce has a whole lot more women, from the working class to middle-class workers to women in power. Their voices – their presence – cannot just be wished away.