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Pakistani women members open up to House truths

The majority of women parliamentarians in the National Assembly complain they are not taken seriously by their male colleagues and have even had to stand up to harassment.

Gulf News

Dubai: The majority of women parliamentarians in the National Assembly complain they are not taken seriously by their male colleagues and have even had to stand up to harassment.

"Our views are not taken seriously despite the fact that we actively participate in proceedings of the House," said Palwasha Khan of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), who was elected on a reserved seat.

During a chat in the parliament cafeteria after attending a session of the House, Khan told Gulf News it would take her male colleagues time to get over their gender bias.

"I believe there is a mental block and it is more related to social problems but we are optimistic that the situation will change and that we would have an equal say in the House," she said.

Khan, who is also member of three standing committees on foreign affairs, the environment and youth affairs, says she draws her inspiration from slain PPP leader Benazir Bhutto, whom she had the chance to work closely with.

Set mindsets

She admitted that women parliamentarians often have to endure sly comments from their male colleagues and received ready advice to "take it easy" when they took up issues.

"I would just say there are certain mindsets and behavioural patterns we could do without," she said.

However, Khan, who holds a degree in international trade and economics from Australia, insisted women members were playing a vital role. "Their role can be improved further but there are so many burning issues these days that the gender issue has taken a back seat."

Kashmala Tariq, who has been elected to the assembly for the second time on a Pakistan Muslim League-Q (PML-Q) ticket, also on a reserved seat, said: "Unfortunately, women are always taken as 'second grade' citizens in our part of the world despite the fact that they are talented and even better educated in some cases."

On the issue of harassment, she just laughed and said: "Yes the harassment is there. If you don't feel comfortable at the work place, it is a form of harassment. Harassment of women is everywhere because there is no legislation on this issue. Cultural backgrounds and feudal mentalities are big factors and the solution lies in improving education and awareness about equal rights for men and women.

Feeling threatened

Tariq, who is known for her flamboyant personality and designers dresses, said she believed her male colleagues were feeling threatened because of the good performance and commitment shown by women MPs.

Tariq is also Chairperson of the Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians Committee and a torch-bearer for human rights in the country.

"Many gender barriers were broken during the last government but there is still need to do a lot. We are way behind when it comes to equal rights for men and women," she said.

Tariq, a corporate lawyer by profession, called for legislation to stop cases of sexual harassment and domestic violence against women.

Although, women are being considered for various professions including the armed forces, women are still hard to find at the work place.

"There is no gender balance despite the fact that women comprise more than 50 per cent of the country's population," Tariq said urging women MPs to stay relevant by not restricting themselves to women's issues alone.

strength

women still a minority

There are a total of 75 women members in the current National Assembly out of a total of 342 members.

They include 15 women who were elected after contesting general elections while 60 have been elected to seats reserved for women. The number of reserved seats for women were increased from 20 to 60 by former president Pervez Musharraf with the avowed objective of bringing women from different social backgrounds into the political mainstream and empowering them to shape the decision-making process and to fight for their rights.

The appointment of Dr Fahmida Mirza of the PPP as Speaker of the House is a first for the Assembly.

- A.A.

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