Despite the relative privilege of some elitist women, the majority of women in Pakistan remain structurally disadvantaged as a result of our discriminatory legal system and obscurant norms and attitudes. There are systemic, almost insurmountable barriers to women’s genuine empowerment. Successive governments have just been paying politically-motivated lip service to the need for gender mainstreaming in our country.
The gender gaps will be closed only with concrete and sustained actions backed by the requisite allocation of resources to promote literacy and basic health services for women in Pakistan, especially those in rural and backward areas. Instead of indulging in diversionary antics, which at times may be inconsistent with our religious and cultural value system, we need to focus more on coherent and concrete legal reforms, even if we have to resort to reversing some of the existing policies and laws.
It is the responsibility of the government and parliament to do so. But both remain averse to any systemic change that weakens their deeply-entrenched elitist power structure and have instead created distortions in our political system to further reinforce the status quo of power and privilege. Reserving seats for women in our elected assemblies and filling them by nomination is one of those distortions that need to be revisited sooner rather than later.
In recent years, no doubt, there has been a conspicuous increase in the number of women in our political institutions but merely showcasing the presence of a few privileged and heavily painted females with designer outfits in our cabinets or legislative chambers is neither gender-mainstreaming nor empowering of women. They only aggravate the already acute sense of socio-economic deprivation. We should be applying our energies and resources to plugging the gender gaps in education, health and employment. It is in these critical areas that Pakistani women need to be included in the mainstream.
Last week, we saw television screens depicting our newly-inducted women assembly members as fashion models” loaded with glitzy outfits and expensive jewellry. That has never been a scene in the world’s genuine democracies where assembly sessions or cabinet meetings are not the place for women members to try out the latest designs or expensive outfits. The problem with our elitist female politicians is that they don’t understand the importance of their high office and the dignity attached to it. Their presence in assemblies or cabinets laden with expensive jewellery, designer outfits or fashion accessories, is of no value to women’s causes.
In our privilege-based political system, women mostly come into political limelight riding only on their ancestry or political influence and connection, and are inevitably tempted to brandish their affluence while in public gaze. Most of them are there not because they are qualified to be in that position but only because of the flawed system of election to the seats reserved for women. The system itself smacks of discriminatory gender inequality.
What they should realise is that as nominated legislators or public offices holders of an impoverished country, they ought to be presenting themselves as an example of austerity and simplicity, eschewing, at least in public, their ostentatious and lavish lifestyle. Their work attire has to be different from their social party dress. They say clothes make the man but it’s true for women, too! One’s choice of clothing speaks volumes about his or her personality. In every profession, certain propriety is attached to work dress for both men and women.
In some cases, for work attire to ensure dignity and civility there are universal don’ts common to all societies, Oriental or Western. But in our case, there are no such rules or guidelines. To be honest, we don’t need any rules on what and how to dress up for work. We just have to be mindful of our own socio-cultural limits. In some cases, like doctors, teachers, lawyers and judges when at work, white or black gowns are customary.
Our ministers and public office-holders including parliamentarians don’t have to wear uniforms or gowns but, as is the practice all over the world, they must be in decent and simple attire while at work in public life, assembly sessions or cabinet meetings. To be fair to themselves and to their high office, they must give a touch of sobriety to their person. Appropriate attire is certainly more demanding for women than men due to unwritten cultural limits and wider variety of clothing available with fast changing fashions almost in every season.
While men can do with any neat and clean shalwar kameez with a waistcoat or a business suit, women’s clothing in public life and in the business community has to be carefully selected to match the nature of occasion and, as a rule, it also has to be simple and decent. A public figure has to look different from a showbiz personality. If you are a minister, you should be even more circumspect in your public attire. A conservative and neat look has to be of primary importance. Fashion is only secondary.
In Pakistan, we have had an array of political icons from Fatima Jinnah to Benazir Bhutto and lately, the outgoing speaker, Fehmida Mirza, but none of them was ever seen making a fashion statement. Political leaders, male or female, ought to be making political statements. In order to remain elegant and sophisticated, they must avoid overstated looks or extravagance. As public figures, they must exemplify the culture and national dignity that they represent.
For others, surely, there are no holds barred. Anyone who has the means for costly outfit and fashion accessories can wear them at his or her will. No one has ever questioned how our showbiz ladies or fashion models dress up or what accessories they wear to look smart. As long as one can afford, it is nobody’s business to gripe over anyone’s clothing or personal look. That is a right available to all, with known limits of decency and public propriety.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 8th, 2013.
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