Feb 23, 2009

Speaking out

Parliamentary speakers, those tasked with keeping order in a House full of colliding egos, have a thankless task. They have to put aside their own party allegiances and be seen to run parliamentary business with an even hand. Difficult enough anywhere, very difficult in the volatile and ever-shifting environment of our own Parliament. For the first time in our history we have given the job to a woman, Dr Fehmida Mirza, an experienced parliamentarian, a doctor and businesswoman – and, it would seem, rather good at doing it. She has quickly put her stamp of authority on the House, and her steely unsmiling gaze over her spectacles has become her hallmark. Steely she may be, but a recent interview suggests that behind the steel there is a determined professionalism and a commitment to bettering the lot of the common man – and woman. The women members of the current parliament are very different to that of its predecessor, where the female membership was dominated by those related to conservative male members, who were either silent or if vocal parroted what their male relatives had instructed them to say. Today’s cohort of women parliamentarians is much less likely to be pushed around by men, and has formed itself into a cross-party grouping of 76 (and there are few other parliaments the world over that can boast such a large female membership) called the Women Parliamentary Caucus. Formed last November they are now beginning to find their legislative feet and show signs of being a catalytic group; a group that will bring focus and direction to the oft-neglected needs of women in a patriarchal and feudal society. Madam Speaker has talked of her pain at seeing the acid-burn victim Maria Shah, who died shortly after her visit. The WPC is to concentrate on addressing the issue of acid throwing which is a growing menace in our society, and will move legislation to combat it in the house in the near future. They are going to revisit the concept of women police stations – and address how women police are recruited and paid – as well as grappling with legislation that attempts to decrease violence against women, sexual harassment and the slew of other problems endemic to Pakistani womankind. Some of this broad and ambitious agenda is a pipe-dream. The women will be ambushed at every turn of the road by the misogynists, their grand schemes demolished or watered down. But some of their good works are going to survive and - if this parliament runs its term and can get the moribund committee system working - will eventually feed through to a betterment of women’s lot. Madam Speaker and the women of this parliament are providing a role-model that male members might learn from, a lesson long overdue.

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