For some, Fiza Batool Gilani is a living example of the nepotism which has plagued Pakistan since its inception. She talks about empowerment, equality and democracy – yet people only listen because she speaks from her unearned position as the prime minister’s daughter.
For others, Fiza is a thoughtful, determined young woman who did not choose to be Yousaf Raza Gilani’s daughter, but has chosen to make the most of her opportunities and cares deeply about making Pakistan a better place, especially for women.
It’s a duality that continuously presents itself as Fiza tells The Express Tribune, from the cozy surroundings of Prime Minister House on a hill overlooking Islamabad, about the plight of the wretched of the earth.
The plight of women is foremost on her mind. For Fiza, democratic representation is the cure, though she is against reserved seats. “I say female politicians should be elected rather than selected to the Parliament,” Fiza says, though she also lauds women parliamentarians in her father’s government, who she believes have made a significant contribution to legislation for the empowerment of women. Fiza thinks the cause is long-term and legislation is the only way to bring about substantial social change. Thus she wants women to be more involved in politics.
She admits, though, that there are often impediments in Pakistan. When asked about certain areas where women are barred from casting their vote – as happened in the recent by-elections in Kohistan – she says that the government is taking the issue seriously and has made changes to the election law. She points out that the law now states that if women are barred from voting, the result from that constituency will be declared null and void.
Fiza’s idol, Benazir Bhutto, remains her guiding inspiration. Giving credit to the Pakistan Peoples Party for its pro-women stance in Parliament and beyond, she says that the party was following Benazir’s vision.
Fiza herself seems to be following Benazir’s vision – and footsteps. She has decided to contest the next general elections and pursue a political career.
She says her focus is now on disadvantaged women in Balochistan, Chitral, Gilgit-Baltistan, Azad Kashmir and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, as the women’s ministry is now under the provincial government.
When asked about the perception that a majority of women parliamentarians come from the ‘elite’ class and do not know the ‘real’ problems of most Pakistan women, Fiza says there are many MNAs and MPAs from the lower and middle classes who are playing a proactive role in legislation and raising women’s issues.
For the PM’s daughter, class and privilege will always be issues she will, at some stage in her life, have to confront or conspicuously deny. She has gone on record saying she aims to challenge the feudal lords and influential politicians of southern Punjab. When asked how women, the majority of whom live under the exploitative feudal and tribal systems, can be empowered without breaking the stranglehold of these systems, she replies: “Not all of them [feudals] are bad.”
“Had that been the case, the majority of parliamentarians who have a feudal background would not have supported the women-related laws. It is now more an attitude among some segments of society, since the power of the landed aristocrats was not the same as it used to be.”
She believes that change can come from other avenues from the bottom up. “What is hindering the progress of women in the rural areas is lack of education, not so much the hold of the landlord,” Fiza says.
But what is her definition of an empowered woman? “An empowered woman has the right to be independent and the opportunity to select a productive role for herself in society.” She also believes that avenues for women are opening up, mentioning the Women Chambers of Commerce and Women Crisis Centres.
Talking about her work with the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP), Fiza believes that education is paramount to improving gender equality. Her poster girl is the late Arfa Karim, who became a Microsoft certified professional at the age of nine. “I want every girl to follow Arfa. Women’s economic empowerment has the potential to change their destiny.”
Land distribution can also do this. Indeed, Fiza says that the government has decided to give 12 acres of state land to poor women. “This programme is being initiated under the BISP.”
She also says the government is all set to introduce a Women Ombudsperson to address the grievances of women working in public and private offices. Fiza is evidently clued in on government activities: she also mentions a project to alleviate the sufferings of women in jails. She clearly wants to expand her horizons, as she plans “to visit the jails of south Punjab so that I can be of some help to the women prisoners” and also to visit Balochistan for a fact-finding trip on how to resolve women’s issues there.
She thinks she can play an important role: “My direct contact with women at the grassroots level will help me in bridging the gap between poor women and government agencies like the Small and Medium Enterprises Development Authority, National Rural Support Programme and BISP,”
Nevertheless, she remains sensitive when asked about her inherited position. “I’m working as a common woman, not as the prime minister’s daughter.”
She quotes the Italian poet Dante: “The hottest place in hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of moral crisis.” Fiza Batool Gilani is certainly not neutral, but whether she can truly emerge from her father’s shadow and stake a position of her own in Pakistani politics will only be seen in five, ten, fifteen years or beyond.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 25th, 2012.