The Politics of Gender

"Of the 255 elected women councillors in Dir district, 87 are represented in the meetings by their fathers, sons, husbands or brothers," says Nisar Begum, 29, a female councillor in the district.

Dir is one of the most conservative and under-developed districts of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP), which abuts the Afghanistan border. One of the 24 districts of NWFP, Dir has a literacy rate of 25.21 per cent with 4 out of ten literate men as against 1 out ten literate women. The figures appear even more disappointing when compared with those of another NWFP district - Abbottabad - which has an overall literacy rate 67.80 per cent. 

Begum blames the local administration for this undemocratic and unconstitutional practice, which is particular to the NWFP. "Even the convener does not ask the male family members representing women to leave the meetings," she complains.

"I don't understand why we are even called to attend when our presence or absence is hardly of any consequence. We sit in another room, the male members do all the talking and we are silent observers. They take all the decisions, whether financial or otherwise; so much so that our opinions are not even sought. We are sent tea and the attendance sheet to sign, after which we leave," says a seething Begum.

Among the very few women councillors who attend the sessions regularly, Begum is undeterred by the recent ban imposed on women from attending the meetings by the local 'jirga' (council of village elders). She attributes her public appearance to her supportive family. Without their nod, it would not have been possible, she concedes. 

With extreme patriarchal attitudes prevalent in the area, the local 'jirga' has made it very clear that it believes women are not equal to men - not even if they happen to be leaders.

According to Ibrash Pasha, the regional manager of Khwendo Kor, an NGO working towards developing women's political participation in the area, "Acceptance of women councillors and their inclusion in the political process is an uphill task."

Pasha explains that prevailing social attitudes are one of the major barriers to women's participation in the local government. "Women are not treated as equals and even barbaric customs like honour killings are still lauded," he says. However, social attitudes do not change overnight and acceptance of women in the government will also take time, he feels. "Politics is predominantly a male preserve. Even in secular parties, female participation is low and not many mainstream parties have women's wings."

In the wake of 'disobedience', women have been threatened with kidnapping, and even murder. The murder of Zubaida Begum, an elected woman councillor and manager of a local NGO, last July, is still fresh in the minds of the people. Zubaida Begum was killed in the dead of night in her native village Darora (Gandigar) Dir Upper. Nisar Begum believes she could have been killed because of her active participation in local politics and the work she did for women's emancipation.

However, these threats are not unusual and occur from time to time to keep a rein on 'errant' women who want to come out from the privacy of their homes. In 2005, the 'jirga' had barred women in Dir from filing nomination papers and contesting elections.

Struggling to be accepted in the male-dominated local government, with strong opposition from the religious lobby, the women, who are ready for the rough and the tumble, find it very difficult to change the attitudes of even the male council members.

Seven years after General Pervez Musharraf initiated the bold social experiment in the form of providing 33 per cent representation of women at all tiers of local elected bodies - a move that has led to an unprecedented 39,000 women being elected - there are complaints that male colleagues are unwilling to accept them as equals.

That is not all. Those who do manage to attend the meetings are hardly ever allowed to take active part in the proceedings. Women also concede that they have been unable to make a difference.

Since the past 12 months, the water supply scheme proposal - for which Begum and her fellow female councillors had sought funding - remains incomplete. "There is an inequitable distribution of the budget. While male members get Rs 200,000 (US$1=Pakistan Rupee 60) annually, we were just given Rs 30,000 in 2006, which was increased to Rs 37,000 this year. The women of our community had high hopes from us; we've let them down miserably. With this measly sum, we cannot get infrastructure development schemes underway."

Kishwar Sultana, 55, another councillor who has been active in local politics for the past three years, has a similar complaint. "They consider women incapable of anything and never include us in any developmental schemes." Not to be cowed down, she has declined the funds allocated to her. "We wanted to pave the dirt tracks and provide water right at the doorstep so that women wouldn't have to walk miles to fetch water, but the money was so little... we would not have been able to finish anything," she says.

Sultana justifies her refusal to accept the funds. "It was not even half of what the male members were getting. We got Rs 80,000 while each male member got Rs 280,000 for his development schemes."

Fed up of being treated like doormats, a consciousness and an awareness of their own identity has now developed among the women councillors. They realise that a lot of the constraints they face are due to their gender identity.

"I think there has been a slow but sure change since the women got a chance to join the local government. They are now aware of their rights, and are making all the right noises," says Nuzhat Shireen of Aurat Foundation, a leading NGO working for political education of women. Incidentally, the foundation had also launched the Citizens' Campaign for Women's Representation (CCWR) in local government elections in 2000. "These uneducated women have made their mark and shown some mettle," says Shireen. Just the fact that they are now aware of their rights is a giant step that has also made a dent in the prevalent patriarchy. "There is so much opposition from the men because they feel their hold is weakening," explains Shireen.

And it is that which has brought the women councillors together, as was recently seen at a press conference in Islamabad, organised by the NGO Pattan, to urge the government to intervene and ensure that they, too, can exercise their rights as equal members of the local government.

In a written complaint the representatives blamed the government for not giving proper guidelines about their roles and responsibilities, and have threatened to quit if their rights are not protected. 


More by :  ZofeenT Ebrahim

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