In conversation with MNA Shandana Gulzar Khan of Pakistan, Chairperson, Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians

Her focus is on the agenda 2030 of the United Nations and SDG5: “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls." Articulate; erudite; impeccably behaved in parliament, change-making committees, and talk shows; unfailingly polite on social media platforms; and meticulously informed about local, national, and international issues, PTI MNA Shandana Gulzar Khan is the perfect example of what a 2021 parliamentarian should be. Her old school values are a dignified blend of her familial traditions and her twenty-first century sensibilities.

With a law postgraduate degree from the University of Cambridge, and her extensive array of almost two decades of work—with Pakistan Regional Economic Integration Activity (USAID); Pakistan Trade Project, (USAID/Deloitte); Mission of Pakistan to the World Trade Organisation, Geneva; Advisory Centre on WTO Law, Geneva; Asian Institute of Trade and development; Azam Chaudhry Law Associates, Islamabad; Justice Salim Dil Khan; and Safirullah Khan Chambers—Shandana is an outstanding role model for every Pakistani woman who doesn’t start with the dream of breaking but carving a glorious door in the centuries old glass ceiling.

A member of National Assembly since August 2018 in Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government, Shandana was appointed “the Parliamentary Secretary for the Ministry of Commerce in September 2018. In September 2019, Shandana was elected Chairperson of Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association for a three-year term. As Chair, she has developed the Commonwealth’s first anti-harassment guidelines, a gender sensitisation toolkit for parliaments, and SDG5 videos for parliamentarians with IPU.”

In parliament, Shandana currently serves on “committees on industry, privatisation, and defence production. She is the convenor of the subcommittee of the first ever Special Committee on Agriculture, focusing on agricultural modernisation with focus on smallholder, women, and youth in agriculture. She is part of the executive committee of the Parliamentary Taskforce on Sustainable Development Goals and convenor of SDG5. She is helping develop Pakistan’s first ever constituency roadmap for each SDG and is developing a women-sensitive budget and gender-sensitive FTA. As part of the executive committee of Pak-Afghan friendship group, she also leads on several political, peace and commerce task forces.”

I asked MNA Shandana Gulzar Khan a few questions:

Mehr Tarar: Sustainable Development Goal 5 is gender equality, and your work as a parliamentarian encompasses that in myriad ways. What are the major factors behind the genesis of your interest in SDG 5?

MNA Shandana Gulzar Khan: The principal factor is the role of my late father [a former bureaucrat and parliamentarian who passed away in 2017], an outlier himself, for delivering on women’s equality and empowerment for my sisters and me. He both espoused and acted on the belief that when the Quran says that humans are the best of His creation, ashraf-ul-makhluqat, it means both men and women, that men and women are equal in the eyes of God. My father repudiated cultural biases and wouldn’t give into any kind of prejudices and pressures against women.

Baba [her father] actively fought for our rights to a formal education, to be free of a burqa if that was our wish, and not to be confined to home if that was what we wished to do. He taught me how important it was for women to be doctors, engineers, technicians, accountants, bankers, salespersons, dentists—most of the services that mostly men provide to women. Why shouldn’t women provide these services for women?

Fast forward to my election as a member of Pakistan’s National Assembly. Thanks to the idea of a Naya Pakistan, and the global popularity of Prime Minister Imran Khan, I won, against huge odds, the election for Pakistan as the Chair of Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians in Uganda in 2019.

Today, four people are helping in the journey of achieving full equality and empowerment for the entire Commonwealth (180 parliaments and assemblies): my mother; Dr Fehmida Mirza, first woman speaker of the Muslim world; Federal Minister for National Food Security and Research Syed Fakhar Imam, and Speaker Asad Qaisar as patron of SDGs in the National Assembly.

Female entrepreneurship in agriculture is a subject of great importance in an agrarian country like ours. What are some of the steps that you have taken for the enhancement of female visibility in agriculture?

Lack of attention to the cause of female entrepreneurship in Pakistan is the black hole that is destroying the fabric of our economy and is contributing to its pervasive poverty. Women contribute to the economy, particularly to agriculture, in myriad ways, yet they’re invisible on paper. The Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that 70 percent of the agricultural work in Pakistan is being carried out by women, yet not a single provincial law defines or recognises women labourers in agriculture. Practically, they can be paid next to nothing as they do not meet the minimum wage criteria.

If one takes a cursory look at the wildly different geographical terrains of Pakistan, women are the overwhelming force keeping our breadbasket full during all times, and in particular, the pandemic. PM Khan is the first leader in the last 40 years of our checkered political history who is focusing on the centrality of agriculture and food security to Pakistan’s survival. Our smallholder farmers, nearly 70-85 percent of all of Pakistan’s agriculturalists, have been treated as the “subcontinent” for the benefit of the local “East India” companies, squeezing them to their last drop of blood.

The 18th Amendment has made things more difficult as food, labour, and agriculture are provincial issues with no effective mechanism for ensuring oversight or implementation.

To counter all these issues, the PM instructed the National Assembly, through the Speaker of National Assembly, to provide solutions for farmers all over Pakistan. Speaker Asad Qaisar created a special agricultural products committee right before the first lockdown. Since March 2020, this committee is working with all provinces and stakeholders despite the pandemic created restrictions to deliver immediate solutions.

The SDG task force is also working with the Kamyab Kisan programme, spearheaded by the PM and SAPM Usman Dar.

Which are the biggest problems female entrepreneurs in agriculture face today?

It’s not going to be a happy story, but it’s the one that needs to be told. Smallholder farmers in Pakistan, in particular women, are helped by their young children, the prime labour force in Pakistan. The key problems in this sector have been the anti-inclusivity and anti-agriculture policies that led to a shift of monetary resources from the rural to urban areas, ensuring lack of lower bargaining power, and having to rely on middlemen to step in where banks wouldn’t venture.

For women in particular, lack of access to resources—land, credit, agriculture implements, machinery, seeds, fertilisers, and pesticides—has been a death knell for any autonomy over the fruits of their labour.

Recognition of their problems and contribution to agricultural was the main problem; the war on terror brought that to light, and now COVID-19. In the absence of any real focus on agriculture, the extreme poverty kept increasing. In former PATA and FATA and parts of Balochistan, a scarcity of urea existed. That was due to the fear of it being used for production of explosives. And therefore, the only thing people could do was invest in livestock trade.

The previous government in 2013 dealt a devastating blow to the people of those regions, especially to women in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, when livestock trade was banned without a single thought given to the livelihoods of women.

While our government is working hard to ensure that we come up with quick short-term solutions, such as the Ehsaas agriculture loans and Kamyab Kisan loans for women, there must be an institutional reframing of how to fix the whole sector.

How do you grade the ratio of female representation on direct and reserved seats in Pakistan’s National Assembly? What are the ways in which the number of women contesting on general seats can be increased?

Perhaps these verses best describe the status of women representation in Pakistan’s assemblies: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep/But I have promises to keep/ And miles to go before I sleep.” Pakistan’s National Assembly, Senate and provincial assemblies have crossed many hurdles and achieved many milestones to be where they are today with both direct and reserved seats representation.

Pakistan is proud to have the Muslim world’s first woman speaker, but the current ratio of women representatives is an accurate yet a sad reflection of a toxic, male-dominated political culture. Women are traditionally seen as “non-electable.” The key presumption behind this mindset is that women representatives can’t deal with the problems of their constituents i.e., men in their constituency. Women are thought of either being averse to or incapable of weathering the rough and tough culture of thana, patwari and katchehri [police station, land record officer, lower court).

Whether this is conditioning or factual or both, political parties, by and large, prefer male candidates in general elections. Ironically, large swathes of their male candidates or counterparts are the “fur-lined slipper types” who rarely venture out of their airconditioned SUVs except during elections, and instead hire male managers for constituency management for the better part of their five-year term in parliament.

While it’s a laudable first step to have constitutionally mandated seats for women, it’s a first step only for “visibility”. The ECP-mandated 5 percent representation for women is an insultingly low number. Political parties must eventually allocate population-based seats to women candidates. But for the next 10 years, the ECP must make it mandatory that each political party awards 1/3 of its open seats to women. Eventually, proportional representation will become a thing of the past.

The idea to have population-based electoral seats’ allocation is just common sense if we want things to change for the better, and to end inequality and extreme poverty in Pakistan.

Undoubtedly, however, being a woman parliamentarian, lawyer, policewoman or officer or active-duty army officer is “culturally” a more difficult career choice than being a doctor or a nurse or a teacher—professions that have achieved general acceptability.

What is required: acceptance by women and their families that some choices will be harder in the short term; and acceptance by men and male policy makers of Pakistan that without male champions of gender equality, change will not come about. Toxic masculinity has harmed Pakistan’s cause incalculably.

As a woman parliamentarian involved in various fields that are generally considered male domains–one being agriculture–do you think you have ample space in parliament to voice your opinions and in your government to have your ideas turn into tangible initiatives?

Absolutely, but things in the world of politics are seldom black and white and are not always focused on reform and change. There is an aversion to change in certain power structures.

But not all is gloom and doom. Being a first-time parliamentarian, I lead the subcommittee of the special committee on agricultural products, which also has powerhouse parliamentarians like MNAs Ayesha Ghaus Pasha and Nafeesa Khattak. We are actively pushing the envelope on agriculture reform for women.

On SDG5, we are developing templates for gender sensitive budgets and gender-conscious FTAs, for which I work closely with Minister for Inter Provincial Coordination Dr Fehmida Mirza.

I also lead a chapter of the Pak-Afghan Parliamentary Friendship Group that works with Afghan women parliamentarians like Mrs Shinkai Karokhel on sensitive issues of peace and women’s status in Afghanistan.

What do you think is the most important contribution of the Prime Minister Imran Khan-led government for empowerment of female parliamentarians?

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s key initiatives for women politicians and parliamentarians are manifold, but perhaps the one that broke the sociopolitical mould for aspiring women workers, politicians, and parliamentarians in PTI was the cessation of the incessant and, frankly, insulting pandering before women of the families of former prime ministers and/or chairpersons of political parties. A woman worker or parliamentarian must have respect in her own right. PM Khan has shattered the slavish mindset that had been imposed on our political culture from the colonial times.

Second, now there is the recognition that women make up half of the country, and anything that aims for the betterment of womankind is not just a human rights issue, it’s also a national development issue.

Third, formal changes in recognition of merit and talent are in place: more than half of all the current parliamentary secretaries are women.

Fourth, pro-women, pro-justice, and pro-inheritance legislations are being passed. The 50 percent women inclusivity policy in all Ehsaas and Kamyab Jawan programmes are all hallmarks of true change and not just politics as usual.



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