LAHORE, Pakistan (WOMENSENEWS)–As 60 women prepare to take their seats in Parliament on Saturday, the incoming members of the religious right are busy trying to convince skeptical Pakistani women that they will be able to put aside their ideological differences with their more progressive colleagues over issues ranging from women’s attire to education.
Thrust into the spotlight after the religious alliance Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal–the United Action Forum–won unprecedented gains in lastmonth’s national elections, it is that party’s women who are shouldering the burden of proof in front of an often-hostile public.
“All this scandal and fear is over nothing,” says Raheel Qazi, daughter of fundamentalist leader Qazi Hussain Ahmed.
“All the religious parties put forth female candidates, and all of us hold Master’s degrees. Why then would we suddenly ban girls and women from attending school or holding a job, and make them stay at home? That’s ridiculous,” she snorts in response to widespread speculation about the alliance’s plans for women. “We want to work towards an Islamic society, not an oppressive one.”
The alliance is now the third largest group in Parliament and gained full control over the Northwest Frontier Province assembly along the border with Afghanistan. Its vehemently anti-American election platform and the public statements of leaders, including Qazi’s father, about ensuring that women understand their place in Islam are exaggerated and misunderstood, she says.
“We are not going to ban co-education, the Internet or cable television. This type of exposure is everywhere,” Qazi explains in broken English. “Instead we will educate our people as to what is right. Then they can make their own decisions.”
The Dawn of a Taliban-like Era?
But from university campuses to the drawing rooms of wealthy families to the commentary pages of nearly every Pakistani publication, female advocates of liberal interpretations of Islam remain unconvinced that the UAF’s election victory will not translate into the dawn of a Taliban-like era.
“I am a woman who enjoys the air of freedom,” says 28-year-old office worker Ambreen Rashid. “Now I fear I will be forced to hide behind a burqa, silence my voice and only dream of exercising my rights.”
For other female politicians, while the inclusion of many UAF women may be contentious, it is also an important step forward for Pakistani women. This is the first time so many women will serve on the national level, in the 17 percent of seats reserved for them by law. As part of his reform program, President Pervez Musharraf also reserved 33 percent of seats in local assemblies.
“The important thing is not to go backwards but to move forwards. Women need to feel on par with the men, to have a say in the corridors of power,” says Tamina Doltana, an old Lahore-based political hand and one of only two women in the country to beat a male competitor in a direct race.
“And that means all women–left, right, and center of the spectrum,” she adds. The UAF “are human beings too. We don’t have to be scared of them just because they have a different opinion. That’s part of democracy, isn’t it?”
Health, Education Priorities of Religious Alliance, Members Say
While they may not see eye-to-eye on all issues, there are several areas where the incoming female members of Parliament can agree.
“Our priorities are no different than other politicians: basic education, health and protection of the law,” explains Razia Aziz, a UAF assembly member from the Northwest Frontier Province.
Only about 40 percent of Pakistani women are literate, while half live just at or below the poverty line, according to government figures. One out of every two Pakistani women is subject to emotional or physical abuse. Widows, divorcees and orphans are particularly hard hit in this male-dominated society.
At the top of the list for UAF female politicians is legislation ensuring women a fair share in property and inheritances and a makeover of divorce laws giving women an equitable share of assets.
“We will establish women-only education institutions and a women’s university,” says Aziz, adding that many families in the conservative province are loathe to send their girls to study with boys.
While UAF female politicians say women should cover their heads, the legislators add that women will never be forced to wear a burqa. Instead, UAF women in the Northwest Frontier Province say they hope to create an atmosphere where women will do so voluntarily.
Qazi, a 37-year-old mother of two, does not wear a burqa though she covers her head at all times and veils her face when she leaves home. At the same time, she carries a cell phone, paints her toenails and has an e-mail account.
“There should be few restrictions on women; this is a modern era of science and technology,” Qazi says. “But a woman should know her first responsibility is to protect her family, her home. And going forth with modesty is paramount.”
It is precisely this type of speech that has many urban Pakistani women worried that UAF members are merely on a public relations campaign to allay society’s fears.
“I have never felt restricted as a woman in Islam. In fact, Islam guarantees our rights and equality, and I am not afraid,” says Doltana, who believes national exposure of religiously conservative women will help Pakistani society.
“The religious right has to have a progressive point of view to be effective, and they will see that,” Doltana insists. “Let them interact with other political women. It will help them to strike a balance when they see how other women live and work, and can still be termed ‘good Muslims.'”
Juliette Terzieff is a freelance journalist currently based in Pakistan who has worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek, CNN International and the London Sunday Times.
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