THE PDM’s jalsa in Multan was in the news as it should be. Any attempt to get rid of any government is, every five years, aided then by the said government’s efforts to forcibly stop the gathering. But this time around, there was a departure from the usual cast of opposition figures who railed against the inhabitants of Constitution Avenue — Aseefa Bhutto-Zardari who spoke to the crowds in Multan.
She was there, said the PPP, in place of her brother, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, who was self-isolating after having tested positive for Covid-19. Initially, when the news was made public that he had been infected with the virus, it was said he would address the jalsa via a video link. But according to reports, this news made it difficult for the local party leadership to gather workers in big numbers and hence alternative plans were made. Enter Aseefa.
Merely the news of her public appearance at an opposition jalsa sparked interest, far beyond just the party circles. And once she appeared on stage, she didn’t disappoint those watching. Her speech was short and not impromptu but she seemed comfortable with the art of public speaking and before long, the inevitable comparisons with her mother and grandfather began.
At the same time, it led to the (not entirely new) side debate which is always a wee bit disappointing. The appearance of two daughters side by side at a political event led to some, if not considerable, commentary about how women have always come to the rescue of their families in times of crises; how daughters come to the rescue of their fathers or even Pakistan when needed. Inevitably, Benazir Bhutto, Nusrat Bhutto, Kulsum Nawaz and even Fatima Jinnah were brought up and their ‘sacrifice’ or ‘duty’ to the nation and/ or family lauded.
But do we really need to propagate this idea of women as reluctant politicians who only leave the chaddar, chaardivari, in times of crises? Is this really the message we need in a society which, as it is, has few women in the workforce and in the public space?
Indeed, the presence of women politicians cannot and should not justify their presence in the political arena as troubleshooters or as aid for their elders, for it perpetuates the idea that female ambition on its own is not acceptable. Neither is this true and nor should it be held up as a worthy characteristic.
And for this reason, political parties’ leadership — especially the women there — should discourage this kind of talk.
If this was the only reason Benazir Bhutto entered politics, she should have retreated the moment her brother, Murtaza Bhutto, returned to Pakistan in the late 1990s. But she didn’t. Not only that, even in the early years when she was far from recognised as her father’s political heir, she didn’t agree with her siblings’ strategy of violence to oppose the military regime and was confident enough to go her separate way. She wasn’t just a sister or a daughter in politics. In fact, so far in Pakistani dynastic politics, she is the only one who can lay claim to far more than inheriting a political party. The PPP that she shaped was very different than her father’s — one just has to compare the foreign policy decisions and economic policies of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto with those of Benazir Bhutto to appreciate this.
Fast forwarding to the present, Maryam Nawaz is in politics because she has a knack for it and is seen as her father’s heir. To reduce her to just a daughter who is helping her father in times of trouble is rather belittling. This really is not the role model she or any other female politician should be aspiring to.
In addition, what does this mean for women who do not belong to political families and aspire to enter the field?
A woman’s ability to work — be it in politics or any other sphere of life — cannot and should not be reduced to a right exercised only in times of crisis for the greater good. It is a right regardless of whether there is a need for it or not, and women leaders and politicians should push for this. And there is also a great need for ambition on the part of women to be more widely acceptable rather than be seen as unseemly. This will only happen if women in the public eye own their ambition and so do the men around them.
And this is why it is particularly hard to understand the PPP’s behaviour or rather reticence when it comes to Aseefa Bhutto. It is commonly said that she is said to be interested in politics — something which was rarely said of BBZ in the early years after he finished his education — and was keen to join its hurly-burly. In fact, Asif Ali Zardari had claimed that she would fight the 2018 election along with him and BBZ. However, nothing came of it. Even for Multan, the PPP was initially at pains to explain that she was there only because her brother could not be.
Inexplicable. Or is the reason more ‘The Crown’ than gender? In an inherited political kingdom/ political legacy, there is one heir and the rest are simply spares. SoAseefa was thrown into the jalsa to make up for the absence of her brother but not in her own right? If so, then this is another reason to criticise dynastic politics. In this case, the PPP’s actions speak just as loudly as the babble about women who venture into politics because the menfolk are in trouble.
Surely our women politicians and those they lead can try and leave such filmi dialogues behind and own their ambition as proudly as they own their political legacies. Ambition should not be a four-letter word for women.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, December 8th, 2020