British Politics Through the London Eye

I have to admit that after shutting out British politics from my life for about two years, and living in blissful oblivion, the ongoing election has finally managed to capture my interest.

A big reason for this shift is the obvious fact that the Leaders’ Debate was broadcast on television and like the rest of the entertainment starved (and I say entertainment, because this debate has been called the X Factor of politics) population of the UK, I happened to have sat and watched the whole thing through. Well, at least the first two parts of this exciting three part series. Now, not only did I watch these debates, but I also tweeted about them with utmost authority and conviction- which is a bit audacious, given that it was the first time that I was actually understanding the reality of the different policies that the Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems have been preaching to the electorate.

After having spent the last seven odd years or so in the US, where politics are ruled either by the Democrats or the Republicans, and where the word conservative is synonymous with being anti gay, xenophobic, anti middle class (kind of), and anti abortion, I came in with certain preconceived notions about the Labour and Conservative parties.

I assumed that the Tories were the British counterparts of the Republicans, and the Labour party was the equivalent of the Democrats. There is no third party in the US, and therefore, the Lib Dems didn’t really ever feature into this equation as far as I was concerned- and up until the televised debate, they didn’t feature that much in British politics either.

I don’t think that I was that far off the mark in my thinking, but I have to admit that the Leaders’ Debate did make me realize a few things. Firstly, I found that the Tories are not really like the Republicans. They are certainly not as hateful and do have some sensible policies. They are anti immigration, yes, and perhaps do favour the upper strata of society in their policies, BUT, they aren’t closed to the world and are not as bigoted as their American friends. Perhaps, this is because of the UK’s geographical location and it being part of the EU and all that the Tories can’t really afford to be isolationists.

The people who are switching their loyalties to the Tories are doing so purely on the party’s economic and foreign policies rather than over its stance on social issues such as gay rights, abortion, family values, role of religion etc. As important as these issues are, they don’t define politics in the UK, the way they do in the US. I also realized that switching party loyalties is not akin to treason (traitor!!traitor!!) as it is in the US.

In the UK, following this televised debate, many people are rethinking their vote and are questioning the ramifications of some of these policies on their personal lives. I hear more dialogue about how free eye care and bus passes would affect people; how council tax would change; how pension would be distributed differently. It’s the fact that these things are being discussed at a micro level which makes it all great and which makes me believe in the election and democratic system again.

Pakistan: Polling Lauded But Women Remain Wary

February 28, 2008 – (WOMENSENEWS) Following Pakistan’s sweeping public repudiation of President Pervez Musharraf in its Feb. 18 election, more women will be included in decision-making as a new government forms to replace a military rule that served as a staunch U.S. ally in the war against terrorism.
The total number of women who will be seated in the new National Assembly is 76, up from 72 in 2006.

In the 342-member National Assembly, 60 seats are reserved for women and 10 for non-Muslims; appointments to the reserved seats for women are based on the proportional number of seats won by each political party. In the Feb. 18 election, 64 female candidates also ran for the remaining 272 general seats in the assembly. Of these, 15 won from their respective constituencies.

In the central province of Punjab 72 women ran for the provincial assembly and seven were elected. Two women out of 24 female candidates were elected to the provincial assembly of Sindh. In the North West Frontier Province, there were 11 female candidates, none of whom secured a seat.

The increase in female participation this year has arrived at the urging of women’s rights activists, including Anis Haroon, who directs the Sindh office of the Islamabad-based Aurat Foundation, which has worked to increase women’s presence in Pakistan’s political process.

“This is challenging the whole patriarchal system,” Haroon said. “People should be used to seeing women in the public space.”

The pay-off for the foundation’s representation push came in 2000, when Musharraf’s government reserved 33 percent of seats in the National Assembly for women.

Though this was a historical move by the president, it did not win him any support from the women’s groups. “In no way can we support a military regime,” said Haroon. “The army has destroyed all institutions.”

With votes tallied from the Feb.18 election, a new coalition government will be formed between the Pakistan People’s Party–led by former premier Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated on Dec. 27–and the Pakistan Muslim League (N)–led by former premier Nawaz Sharif. The highest number of seats in the National Assembly were secured by the two parties, whose leaders opposed Musharraf, who relinquished his military title on Nov. 29.

Disorganized Polling

Sumayya Ahmed is one of many women in Karachi who came out to vote on the morning of Feb. 18 for an election that was delayed nearly six weeks because of Bhutto’s death.

She, like others, had a difficult time getting to the ballot box because of the chaos and disorganization that were rampant at her local polling booth. Women elsewhere, particularly in the North West Frontier Province, were deterred from voting by religious militants who shut down polling places for female voters.

“We have risked our lives to come here and exercise our right,” Ahmed said, adding that voting is her only way of expressing her opinion that it is time for change.

Law and order has been precarious with sporadic suicide bombings in major Pakistani cities, frequent stints with curfews and threats from the religious militants occurring ahead of the election.

Women form approximately 60 percent of the population in Pakistan. A large number reside in rural areas, where basic amenities are missing and women’s rights ignored. As a result, they are kept away from education, fall victim to practices such as honor killings and are forced to marry against their will.

At the same time, an increasing number of urban women are becoming pilots, professors and heads of multinational companies. The governor of the State Bank of Pakistan in recent years was also a woman; Bhutto was elected twice by popular vote to lead the country. Pakistan’s women are diverse, and face a broad array of issues with varying rights and opportunities.

Women Wait and Watch

The focus of organizations such as the Aurat Foundation is to ensure that women get their basic civil rights, such as access to education, opportunities for employment and the freedom of mobility without a male escort. With a new government forming, these organizations are closely watching political activities to determine what the new government’s stance will be on women’s rights.

Haroon already senses that women’s issues may be brushed aside. Though the People’s Party is known to be liberal, she said, women have so far been missing from all of the press conferences held by the party chair, Asif Ali Zardari. As for Sharif’s Muslim League (N), she said, they have lean toward religious conservatism in the past. When the party was in power, it tried to establish Sharia, or Islamic law, as supreme in the country. Sections of Sharia, such as counting women’s testimony as worth half of a man’s, were established in the 1980s.

Most political parties publish manifestos that address women’s concerns such as the lack of schools and a shortage of female teaching staff, as well as the dearth of hospitals and female health workers to treat women. But few actually propose any substantive legislation to rectify these problems.

Having female lawmakers in the National Assembly means that women now have a sympathetic ear in the legislature, said Haroon. Despite this presence, women have not been able to achieve much in their legislative role because the parties’ agendas take precedence over everything else and women’s concerns sink down.

“Women have been making a lot of noise, but they are bound to their parties and this bind prevents them from taking any step that is over the top,” said Haroon.

Token Presence

Arifa Noor, editor of a current affairs magazine called Herald, said that Pakistani politics are also run on family lines, leading to women in office who belong to influential parties and who do not really have a separate political voice. These women, she said, are not necessarily interested in women’s issues but are engaging in the political process because of personal affiliations.

The description perfectly fit Bhutto, the daughter of a prime minister who was removed from office by military coup. Although Bhutto appointed the first female high court judge and police officers, she achieved little in terms of reforming Pakistan’s Hudood ordinances–which charged rape victims with adultery–or enshrined legal discrimination against women.

Sabrina Mujib, vice president of Kids University, a primary school based in Karachi, said that people should stop looking at the mistakes of the past and should give future governments another chance. “Change will come,” she said.

As optimistic as Mujib might be, though, she did not vote in the election nor did she support any political party.

For some women who went to the polls, women’s rights take a back seat to the urgent concerns of political strife, unemployment, high inflation and food shortages, and many here express a degree of resignation that the new government will be plagued by the same problems.

Women, especially, are disillusioned with female candidates who were part of a government that many perceived as ineffective and failed to advance women’s rights. It’s a disillusionment that Haroon is quick to denounce.

“The current parliament was a rubber stamp in which the men did not deliver,” she said. “So, how do you expect women to deliver?”

Sheherzad Kaleem is a filmmaker and freelance journalist who divides her time between the United States and Pakistan.


A Cloth That Binds

I don’t know about the rest of Pakistan, but Karachi is definitely becoming more polarized as far as religious and liberal ideologies are concerned. Nothing exemplifies this better than the womenfolk of Karachi- the hijabis/burqa walis vs the sleeveless walis. One quicker than the other to judge and condemn.

The so-called ‘progressive liberals’ look upon the hijabis as crude, backward, unsophisticated and unprogressive beings. They are forever judgmental of them and find their presence at exotic restaurants, the oh-so-selective kitty parties and top-notch boutiques, at odds with their high-class upbringing. They, myopically, regard the attendance of these ‘paindu hijabans’ at any intellectual gathering as an anomaly, and look upon them as brainless creatures that should largely be ignored. Subconsciously, they banish the ‘others’ from their world as if they were lepers.

Conversely, these beacons of morality, the hijabis, are often condemning anyone not like them to the pits of hell. Too western, too modern, too ‘out there’ is how they define these liberal women. They gawk (much more than their male counterparts) at the ‘nanga pana’ of the fellow women. They hold the ‘independent biggri hui khawateen’ as the root cause of the collapse of an otherwise, beautifully functioning Islamic society. They don’t give anyone a chance, unless that anyone is willing to embrace their way of life and nothing else.

So, what amazes me most is that two sets of women, who are so mutually exclusive and who would not be caught dead in the company of the other, unless it is to preach or liberalize or to convert one way or another, should become so much like each other when thrown together in a ‘lawn’ cloth exhibition.

How a lawn exhibition makes everyone equally bereft of any civic sense is quite beautiful. As one gets jostled, it’s quite refreshing to see that the arm from the left is a ‘sleeveless wali ka’ and the one from the right is a ‘burqa wali ka’. That no amount of modern or religious training is going to keep these women from pushing, shoving, bitching and fighting for the last remaining paisley-printed, yellow and pink two-piece suit.

The ultimate sight to behold is the unity with which they all push together against the salesman’s table until he is backed into the pile of cloth, and ultimately, cornered into listening to all of them at the same time. Their collective strength and determination is remarkable indeed.

Attempts are made to break the queue. Bodies press close as everyone inches forward to pay for this most sought after merchandise. One occasionally gets pushed into the people standing ahead, who turn around and glare as if a cardinal sin has been committed. And once again, everyone is an accomplice- the crude, the refined; the backward, the progressive; the hijabi, the modern.

This reunion and togetherness of womanhood ends as soon as the Exit Sign nears. The Chanel sunglasses so far perched on the head are brought down; the niqab is pulled tightly across the face; the judgmental looks return. Cars approach. Doors are slammed shut- forever blocking out the other, or at least till the next lawn exhibition, when everyone becomes an accomplice again.

Who am I to write this? Someone who would never be accepted into either world.