On Tuesday, Hina Rabbani Khar became the first woman and the youngest parliamentarian ever in Pakistan’s history to hold the post of Foreign Minister.
Does this mean that we start cheering? No.
Women like Hina Rabbani Khar may be educated, hardworking parliamentarians, but their elevation to their jobs has been through their political influence, rather than their skills or political knowledge. Khar, for instance, is a talented restaurant owner (anyone who has eaten at the Polo Lounge in Lahore can testify to that), and reportedly a skilled mountain climber, but she has never publicly campaigned to win an election. Her election as member of the National Assembly has been on the basis of her last name and her feudal lineage — as part of the Khar family, her father is a politician, her uncle was Punjab’s Chief Minister in the 1970s — as opposed to her popularity amongst the masses, or her achievements as a restaurant owner, or as deputy finance minister in the Musharraf regime. As part of the political elite, Khar’s elevation to Foreign Minister has very little to do with women’s rights, and more perhaps, to do with the lack of candidates that the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) could call on to be the next Foreign Minister, five months after sacking Shah Mehmood Qureshi.
Secondly, it is widely accepted that the civilian government controls very little of foreign policy, and has ceded most of their control over it to the men in Rawalpindi. From relations with India to the United States, it is believed that the Pakistan Army’s General Headquarters (GHQ) that is calling the shots. Khar, in her position, will most likely be an administrator, and not a visionary.
Third — women MPs being elevated to positions of power has rarely translated into real action and change for the women of Pakistan.
In 1988, Benazir Bhutto became the first woman and the youngest parliamentarian to hold the post of Prime Minister. During her two stints in office, the PPP-led government was unable to change the Hudood Ordinance, a draconian law from the time of dictator Zia ul-Haq that deprived rape victims of their rights. Indeed, the government contained coalition partnersthat included religious parties violently opposed to any changes in the Ordinance.
This is not to knock the women MPs that are serving in both the National and Provincial Assemblies. Following a change in the number of reserved seats for women in parliament by the Musharraf regime, now nearly 22 percent of parliamentarians are women. Repeatedly, women parliamentarians such as Sherry Rehman and Farahnaz Ispahani from the PPP have pushed for laws against the sexual harassment of women and the persecution of minorities. The opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PML-N) Tehmina Daultana took the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) chief Gen. Ahmad Shuja Pasha to task when he was testifying in the National Assembly about the presence of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan.
In the provincial assemblies, parliamentarians like Sassi Palijo (also from a political family) have won on general seats as opposed to seats reserved solely for women in the province of Sindh, and have publicly campaigned for votes. The PPP’s Firdous Ashiq Awan has been elected on a general seat in Punjab, and is currently serving as Information Minister. She may have resigned now, but the PML-Q parliamentarian Marvi Memon cemented her reputation by being more than her father’s daughter, by working simultaneously on a number of political issues and raising awareness for a number of causes — from flood victims to rights of workers. The fact that they have managed to do so much in the light of obvious slights and terrible insults, such as when former president Pervez Musharraf intimated that women used rape claims for money or to obtain visas, is heartening. Let us also not forget that some of the most opposition they face is from within their own parties — male chauvinists who’d prefer to see women behind closed doors, who would block legislation in parliament rather than allow women their rights, or would announce women being buried alive as part of their "tradition."
Despite this, Khar’s election is not the time to wave the banner for a moderate Pakistan, or for the PPP to boast about its liberal credentials. When Khar gets elected on a general seat on her own merit, is allowed to publicly campaign without threats to her life, and is given a ministerial portfolio on merit, you can hand me a banner. Until then, let us reserve the optimism for another day.
Huma Imtiaz works as a correspondent for Express News in Washington DC, and can be reached at email@example.com