Asma Jahangir’s phenomenal electoral victory, leading her to become the first woman president of the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA), reminds me of another landmark in Pakistan’s history. Pakistan returned to civilian rule in 1988 after more than a decade of dictatorship. Benazir Bhutto was elected prime minister and became the first woman to lead a Muslim country. I was a schoolgirl in Islamabad and thus ineligible to vote, but was keenly interested in politics, and I would ask everyone about their voting intentions. A conversation with our driver is one that I remember still.
“Vote kiss ko dalo gey Mumraiz?” I asked him.
“Bibi ji Sharif Nawaz ko,” he responded, inadvertently reversing Nawaz Sharif’s name.
“Benazir ko kyoun nahin?”
“Bibi ji Islam mein aurat sarbarah nahin ban sakti,” he said, as he dutifully drove me around town.
Having spoken to several others, I knew that Mumraiz’s rationale did not reflect the views of most Pakistanis but there were nevertheless a significant number who did espouse similar thoughts. Mumraiz was a great guy. He wasn’t bigoted per se. He had just been fed the wrong information.
Misinformation and hate-mongering had become the unfortunate hallmark of the campaign against Asma. From accusations about her faith to raising fear about her allegedly suspect anti-judiciary pro-government aspirations, a belligerent negative campaign was orchestrated by her opponents. It didn’t work though.
If there is anything Asma’s election proves, it is that most Pakistanis, have seen through our negative propaganda machines. Due credit must be given, however, to the leaders of the lawyers’ movement, who, with the exception of Mr Hamid Khan, were all supportive of Asma’s election. Munir Malik, Tariq Mahmood, Ali Ahmed Kurd, were squarely rooting for Asma. Aitzaz Ahsan, though less involved with the election, was also pleased with the result and did not offer support to Asma’s opponents.
The support of these key men, founding fathers of the lawyers’ movement, was crucial in securing Asma’s victory and helping her overcome the lies that were spread about her. In that sense, the lawyers’ movement continues to be a beacon of hope and light for Pakistan for it has also displayed a propensity to introspect and self-correct. Like any important movement, it saw its peaks and troughs, and in the words of Mr Kurd, “Asma’s victory is a reaction” to the troughs.
Notwithstanding the strategic support of other influential and conscientious members of the bar, Asma’s own hard work, courage and independent-mindedness over the years and through the darkest periods of Pakistan’s history cannot be overlooked. Whether one looks domestically or to the Philippines, India or Bangladesh, women have won elections on the back of sympathy votes after male members of their family have been martyred. Asma has done it all on her own.
As such, Asma’s role as president SCBA may very well be greater than that of any other woman politician. Women have played an increasing yet limited role in Pakistan’s politics since Musharraf’s introduction of the reserved seats. Though not a bad way to boost female participation in politics, women who have availed of these seats are either beholden to familial politics or more obliged to toe the party lines for lack of their own constituencies. Asma’s independence, however, cannot be curtailed by either of these considerations, so the SCBA under her watch will surely be a potent force.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 1st, 2010.