Election 2008 The World is Watching

Video Dispatch

Pakistan: Women and Power

BY Sharmeen Obaid ChinoyOctober 22, 2008


Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy is a regular correspondent for FRONTLINE/World and is based in Karachi.
Video editor: Charlotte Buchen.

I was 11 years old when Benazir Bhutto was elected Pakistan's prime minister. It was a momentous occasion for many of us because her election signified that women could achieve whatever they wanted to in the country.

It is true that Pakistan, a Muslim country of more than 160 million people, has a rich history of women in politics. It is also true that many of them have found their way to power because their husbands or fathers or brothers were already in politics, which gave them access. Lately, that mindset has begun to change.

In January 2000, former President Pervez Musharraf initiated a series of local government reforms that allowed women to enter politics at a grassroots level. Nasreen Jalil, Karachi's deputy Mayor feels that this step allowed women from different income levels to participate in government.

Sitting in her office in Karachi she tells me that the city council she presides over has 255 members, and 33 percent of them are women. "These women are from the lower-middle classes; they are not even well educated. But just the fact that they have been elected and sent to this forum, means that they are now part of the decision-making process and this will bring about a difference."

Jalil is a good example. She doesn't come from a political family, and when she joined the political party, Mohajir Quami Movement (MQM) 20 years ago, they didn't even take her seriously. "My husband was accepted immediately because he was a man. I was taken casually and given menial jobs like making tea, or cleaning or photo-stating," she says.

"My husband was accepted immediately because he was a man. I was taken casually and given menial jobs like making tea, or cleaning or photo-stating," says Jalil.

Jalil worked hard to be recognized and eventually served as a senator in Pakistan. But she also admits that she is lucky -- most women in the country are unable to enter politics because of family pressures or lack of opportunities. She believes it's the same in the United States.

"The United States lacks strong female candidates because people probably don't want them there. They are afraid of strong women all over the world," she tells me. "Look at how they disregarded Hillary Clinton," pointing to the fact that Barack Obama did not nominate her as his running mate.

In the past few weeks, local Pakistani newspapers have taken a keen interest in the upcoming U.S. elections, especially in Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Of course, part of that interest stems from her now infamous recent meeting with President Asif Ali Zardari, in which he not only remarked that she "looked gorgeous" but also made, what some here say, an inappropriate comment about wanting to hug her.

The Urdu language newspapers ran prominent accounts of the "embarrassing" incident, and television channels played romantic ballads over footage of the meeting. Pakistan's late night comedy shows lampooned the president's faux pas, and the outcome of the meeting enraged many women across the country.

"I think it is offensive that women have to be pretty and that counts for the majority of their popularity," says Jalil. "Why don't people comment on whether Mr. McCain is wearing the right kind of suit or about the color of his hair? "It was a mistake. I think the people of Pakistan felt humiliated."

Pakistan's late night comedy shows lampooned the president's faux pas, and the outcome of the meeting enraged many women across the country.

President Zardari's remarks are not new to Pakistan. A few weeks ago, a prominent English Language newspaper here published an article "Hotties in the House" listing the names of all the "good looking" politicians who are serving in the local and national parliament. Featured prominently on that list is Shazia Marri, who comes from a political family but only began her political career a few years ago. She is a member of the late Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party.

Marri became a child bride at the age of 14 and was divorced with a child by the time she was 16. That experience has made women's rights issues a top priority for her. She is also also a beneficiary of Pakistan's reserve seat quota for women, which guarantees a certain number of seats for women in local and national assemblies. Marri is now an information minister in the province of Sindh.

Shazia Marri.

Pakistan politician, Shazia Marri.

When I walk into her office, she is surrounded by men, women and children who have come looking for her help. Although she is chiefly the government spokesperson and liaison to the media, she's inundated daily with people who need jobs, health care, basic sanitation -- the list goes on. Her can-do attitude has made her very popular with all walks of life.

While Marri compares her challenges to that of American women, she believes that Asian women have more political drive than their U.S. counterparts. She is not especially interested in whether Gov. Palin is elected vice president or not -- to her she is just another person running for office. "I don't think there should be any special allowance made for being a woman. She [Palin] has to have the potential and the mindset," says Marri. "Becoming the vice president of one of the most powerful countries in the world is a tough job."

share your reactions

Riaz Haq - San Jose, CA
On International Women's Day in March this year, I wrote an opinion column "Are Women in Pakistan Better Off Today?" for a California publication. Here's a key excerpt: "Most of the women represented in Pakistani parliament are from the same privileged, feudal class that is largely responsible for discrimination against women in Pakistan. These women in parliament have not been particularly vocal in raising women's issues and they have not offered any serious legislation other than the Women's Protection Bill that was offered and passed because of President Musharraf's personal intervention. The word "feudal princess" often used to describe late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto applies well to the vast majority the women members of parliament in Pakistan. There is a continuing large literacy gap of as much as 45 percent between men and women and the opportunities for rural women's education remain elusive. Women are also much more likely to be subject to violence in feudal settings."
I invite you to read: http://www.riazhaq.com/2008/03/woman-speaker-another-token-or-real.html
and http://www.riazhaq.com/2008/03/are-women-in-pakistan-better-off-now.html

Kelley Parks - Newark, NJ
Dear PBS, As i watched the CNN pundits this morning discussing Sarah Palin's wardrobe and the 150,000 Republican dollars that have been spent on it, I realized that we Americans are obsessed with how women look. I wouldn't be surprised if "hotties in the Senate" is a list that is released here soon- We are not much different from a society like Pakistan's however hard we like to believe that we are.
Well done for making some of us women realize that. Our battle is far from over...

Ali Raza - Boston, MA
This is a very interesting report yet the fact that Ms. Jalil belongs to a political party that uses violence and terror as a policy tool should have been noted. May 12th 2007 and all its media coverage is just one example of MQM willing to murder and terrorize to achieve political goals. April 9th 2008, when lawyers in Karachi were burned alive by MQM and later their chief even admitted to their involvement. While Ms Jalil as a woman might be a good politician but would we appreciate a female militant in the ranks of Taliban? No we would not and should not. The point is that MQM must denounce violence and enter mainstream non violent politics for their workers to get same respect or acknowledgment as other serious political entities. What good is a woman in a violent organization?

Larry Bartlet - New York, NY
What a terrific report. We Americans have been congratulating ourselves that the 2008 elections has seen not one but two women take center stage and all this while Pakistan, a Muslim country has tons of women in positions of power. We can all learn a thing or two...