Abida Hussain sat next to a man

Abida Hussain is a legend in Pakistani politics, such is her determination and passion.

Maria Umar October 05, 2011
Yesterday I was at the ceremony that launched the first Women Political Empowerment Program, funded by USAID at the Marriott hotel in Islamabad. I never thought that I would attend this event, however, I was persuaded by members of my US Alumni chapter who emailed me, sent me multiple text messages and and called me several times - how could I say no to such perseverance?

As I entered the event, I spotted Fauzia Kasuri, the President of the Women's Wing of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf. I had met her only once before at the US State Department in Washington DC, during the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women Program. Although Fauzia met me like a long lost friend, I could clearly tell that she hadn't a clue as to who I was. As the evening progressed, she asked me where we had met before. Kasuri gave me a bear-hug at the recollection and proceeded to invite me to the PTI Head Quarter in Islamabad - she was am absolute pleasure to be around.

The program started with a coma-inducing introductory speech of what politics is, why it is important, how the US is helping us and why political empowerment is vital for women in the developing world. It went on and on. I am sure that the speech  would have been interesting to someone who is keen on politics. For me, however, it was a painful experience.

The guest list included Sandra Houston, the country director for National Democratic Institute (NDI); Dr Catherine Johnson, senior director at the Office of Democracy and Governance, USAID; Jamie Martin, assistant cultural affairs attache, US Embassy; Talat Khurshid, planning advisor at HEC and so on. But just before I could doze off, the biggest surprise of the evening came.

Abida Hussain , a legend in Pakistani politics, was present at the conference! Although I am not one for politics or politicians, this woman is special. Here is the story she told at the conference that made me fall in love with her determination.

In her speech, Hussain stated that she was elected as a member of the National Assembly in 1985. She was the only woman among 116 men, and this was, thus, a bold step in breaking the gender gap. Having been elected, she was distraught to find out she was made to sit with the women on the reserved seats rather then with the men who were seated in alphabetical order. Indignant, Abida Hussain went to the secretary of the parliament and demanded to be treated as an equal to the men.

The secretary meant well, but said the wrong thing:
“Okay, Abida sahiba, you can sit next to your husband.”

Hussain responded by looking at him coolly and said:
"I spend enough time with my husband at home. I would like to be seated in alphabetical order.”

As fate would have it, her name came right next to that of a maulana saheb who was severely offended and demanded that Hussain be asked to sit elsewhere. This time she ended up being seated next to a gentleman who turned to her and said apologetically:
"Look Abida, I am not the alpha-male type, my friends already make fun of my 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?"

Hussain couldn't refuse this plea. Thus, she decided that she was going to find someone who wouldn't mind sitting next to her.  Spotting a young man who looked less than 25-years-old (the minimum age for contesting in the NA elections) Hussain went up to him and told him that she knew there was no way he was 25 and if he didn’t let her sit next to him, she would raise the issue on the floor. The young boy was terrified and said he was going to turn 25 in 2 months - such was his fear, that he let Hussain sit next to him without complaint.

The entire room was in fits of laughter at this story.

Abida Hussain's message struck a cord with me. Before I met her, I would never have guessed that she was so passionate about bringing about change to Pakistani women. Moreover, her determination humbled me. I am more driven than I have ever been, and I wish to contribute more to help Pakistan.

This is why meeting new people and giving everyone a chance is important; you never know what gems you might uncover under all the rubble and sand.

Maria's original post can be viewed here.
Maria Umar The Founder of Women’s Digital League. As part of her passion for social enterprise and not-for-profits, she has been working to train and send work to women in the remote valley of Karimabad, Hunza in collaboration with a local NGO and TimeSvr.com. Before founding Women’s Digital League, she taught as an ESL teacher at a private school. Maria holds an M.A. in English Literature and blogs at www.PakiMom.wordpress.com. .
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.

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