Women Political Empowerment Program (WPEP) Pakistan

Just got back from attending a program I NEVER EVER in my CRAZIEST dreams thought I’d attend. It was the launch ceremony of the first Women Political Empowerment Program funded by USAID. I went because my US Alumni chapter emailed, texted and called multiple times … being the fuzzy, warm bear that I am, I couldn’t say no. Got there hoping to see a few familiar faces – saw none and almost had a heart attack. But then I spotted Fauzia Kasuri, the President of Women Wing of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (better known as Imran Khan‘s party). I had met her previously at the US State Dept in Washington DC during the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women Program. She met me like a long lost friend but I could tell she hadn’t got a clue who I was. She later asked me where we had met before and gave me a bear hug … invited me to the PTI HQ in Islamabad … and was generally a sweetheart.

Anyhoo, the program started … we were informed some of the ladies had been in an Election Campaign Development Workshop all day. Hmm … what was I doing there??? Then started a coma-inducing intro of what politics is, why it’s important, how the US was helping us, how political empowerment was vital for women in the developing world and blah blah blah. It was pretty interesting I am sure but me having no interest in politics whatsoever made it a painful experience. The guest list included Sandra Houston, the Country Director for National Democratic Institute (NDI); Dr. Catherine Johnson, Senior Director at Office of Democracy and Governance, USAID; Jamie Martin, Assistant Cultural Affairs Attache, US Embassy; Shabbir Ahmed, Country Representative of NFEC; Talat Khurshid, Planning Advisor at HEC. But before I could doze off and embarrass myself by falling out of my chair, the biggest surprise of the evening came.

Abida Hussain is a legend in Pakistani politics having been the first woman to be elected to the National Assembly back in 1985 on an open seat. Her political career, however, started way back in the 1960s. She has served as a cabinet minister and was appointed as ambassador to the US. Sista’-friends, I am not one for politics or politicians, I don’t go starry-eyed at famous faces, but this woman is special. Here is the story she told that made me fall in love:

I was elected as a member of the National Assembly in 1985 – the only woman among 116 men. The first task given to us was to hold an election on the 20 reserved seats for women. Once elected, I was very unhappy to find out I had been made to sit with these women rather then with the men that I had met head on in the election and who were seated in an alphabetical order. I went to the secretary of the parliament and demanded I was treated as an equal to the men. The secretary being a bureaucrat as usual meant well but said the wrong thing, “OK Abida Sahiba, you can sit next to your husband.” I looked at him coolly and said, ‘I spend enough time with my husband at home. I would like to be seated in the alphabetical order.” As fate would have it, my name came right next to that of a maulana saheb (a religious cleric) with a big beard and a turban. He was offended and distressed, and demanded that I be asked to sit elsewhere. The secretary came to me and this team seated me next to a gentleman that I am still good friends with. This guy turned to me and said, ‘Look Abida, I am not the alpha-male type, my friends already make fun of my squeaky voice and lack of facial hair. Now if I agree to sit next to you when no one else would, it would confirm everyone’s suspicions about my masculinity. So do you mind sitting with someone else?” Now since it was said so sweetly, I couldn’t refuse. This time I told the secretary I was going to find someone who wouldn’t mind sitting next to me. So I saw this young man who just couldn’t be 25 (minimum age for contesting the NA elections). I went up to him and told him I knew there was no way in hell he was 25 and if he didn’t let me sit next to him I would raise the issue on the floor. The kid was terrified and said he was going to turn 25 in 2 months but I could sure sit with him.

I was in stitches. But more than that she said what I’ve been feeling for a long time but couldn’t articulate. She said women come into politics because for them it’s about winning an election and joining the assembly. Leadership arises out of frustration with social conditions that need to be changed but that no one is doing sufficient work for – to feel passionate about an issue and and make it a cause. To use her exact words, “They win a seat and then become chamchees (sycophants) to the male members.” LOVED THAT!

Afterwards, I went to say hello to her and found her so down-to-earth. She asked me what I did and after finding out I was an entrepreneur she told me about her daughter who has been working for the last 14 years setting up an energy plant in her village in interior Punjab province. I got goosebumps just hearing about it … she told me to email her and she would make the introduction between me and her daughter. This is why meeting new people and giving everyone a chance is important … you never know what gems you might uncover under all that rubble and sand.

…. it’s unlike me, but I smile (NOT grin) as I write this post … 🙂