archieves2 A sane voice

A sane voice

A sane voice


The Awami National Party is the only political party that has women
as equal members at all levels and has not boxed them in some odd wings. As
Central Vice President of the party, I am an integral part of the party’s policy
and decision-making. I am also a member of the party’s think tank where matters
of national importance are reviewed on a regular basis.

MNA Bushra Gohar – Central Vice President ANP
talks to The News On Sunday

By Shehar Bano Khan

The News on Sunday (TNS): What prompted you to move for the repeal of
Blasphemy Law in the National Assembly?

Bushra Gohar (BG): It has been a longstanding commitment of the human rights
activists and progressive political parties in the country. I have also actively
struggled for the repeal of all discriminatory laws, including the blasphemy
law. These laws were made a part of the statute books during the Zia era with
malafide intent, mainly to appease a handful of religious extremists in the
country in order to secure support for his illegitimate government. These laws
are in contradiction to Islam, our constitution, and national and international
commitments. The amendments to the blasphemy provisions in the PPC have allowed
religious zealots to go ahead with their extremist agenda disregarding the
essential requirement of malicious intention in any criminal offense. In the
present state, the blasphemy laws in Pakistan can easily be misused and
practical instances testify this horrible fact. Decades have passed since the
black law was enacted but none of the governments that followed found the
strength or courage to repeal the discriminatory laws that contributed
significantly to intolerance, violence, bigotry, hate and injustice in the
country.

As the country struggles with challenges of extremism, militancy, and
intolerance, I felt it was important now more than ever to make concerted
efforts to ensure a level-playing field for citizens irrespective of their
caste, creed, colour, and religion. It is unfortunate that in Pakistan the mere
mention of taking up laws promulgated by a dictator in the name of religion is
tantamount to blasphemy. I felt by submitting the bill I would give strength and
courage to other members who too have long struggled against Zia’s black laws
and would come forward and submit amendments. I submitted the bill for repeal
hoping that it would initiate a meaningful debate within the Parliament. It is
important that a Parliamentary Committee is formed to review all laws
promulgated by dictators to further their illegitimate rule.


TNS:
Were you supported by the minister for minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti?

BG: I didn’t seek or require his support as I don’t consider the matter
to be only a minorities’ issue. It is more a constitutional and human rights
issue. The ministry of minorities has a weak and poor record of safeguarding
religious minorities’ rights and is nothing more than a window dressing with no
substantial role in any policy making regarding minorities in the country. It
has not played a pro-active role within and outside the parliament to evolve a
consensus on equal citizen’s status for minorities, mainly religious minorities,
in the constitution through the 18th amendment. Instead of removing the
limitation in the constitution on a minority becoming a head of state, through
the 18th amendment even the prime minister is now required to be a Muslim
citizen. The Awami National Party (ANP) is the only party that has put a note of
reiteration on both these clauses reaffirming its commitment to removing such
discriminatory clauses. The party believes that as citizens, minorities have
equal rights, which include elections to any statutory position in the country.

Shahbaz Bhatti has at best only given lip service to the myriad issues faced by
religious minorities. On several occasions he made commitments to amend the
Blasphemy Law and/or procedures but we have not seen anything of substance from
him and don’t expect anything worthwhile in the near future.

I don’t understand why we have a ministry of minorities and a ministry of
religious affairs with both working on matters related to religion and doing a
terrible job in ensuring religious freedom, harmony and rights as ensured in the
Constitution. I feel we should not have a ministry merely on the basis of
religion as the rights of all other minorities in the country are invariably
compromised.

TNS: Now that the minister has categorically stated that there shall be
no repeal and only amendments to the law, will you withdraw your demand?

BG: I am deeply concerned at the statement made by Bhatti as it is not
based on any consensus built within the parliament or the government. This could
be his personal position and he has not taken any of the coalition partners or
civil society on board. I don’t see why I would change my position on the basis
of a politically expedient position taken by the minister of minorities.

TNS: Coming from an area like Swabi were you not deterred by conservative
elements in demanding for abolition?

BG: I have been part of a long struggle for human rights in the country
and have always been ready for the worst consequences. The people of Swabi were
at the forefront of Fakhre Afghan Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s struggle for freedom
against the British and later for equal rights and provincial autonomy. I don’t
believe any major opposition to the proposed bill will come from Swabi as the
majority of the people are politically aware and uphold democratic norms.

TNS: Do you think your demand could adversely affect the ANP?

BG: The proposed bill is in line with the ANP’s longstanding commitments
articulated in its election manifesto.

TNS: As a woman, are you comfortable sitting in the parliament?

BG: I have never felt inhibited or uncomfortable at any public forum
because of my strong convictions and commitments.

TNS: Do you think you have reached your glass ceiling or being a member
of the National Assembly is just a beginning to achieve your objectives?

BG: The National Assembly is only a means and not an end for me. It is,
in fact, just a beginning of a long struggle that lies ahead if we are to see
strengthening of democratic processes, social justice, and human rights in the
country.

TNS: Where do you place yourself in terms of policy-making in ANP?

BG: The Awami National Party is the only political party that has women
as equal members at all levels and has not boxed them in some odd wings. As
Central Vice President of the party, I am an integral part of the party’s policy
and decision-making. I am also a member of the party’s think tank where matters
of national importance are reviewed on a regular basis.

TNS: What is your role as chairperson on Women’s Development for the
National Assembly’s Standing Committee?

BG: National Assembly Standing Committees are a constitutional body
within the Federal Government. Standing Committees provide legislative guidance
and oversight to the relevant ministry as per the Rules of Procedure and Conduct
of Business of the National Assembly.

As Chair of the Standing Committee on Women’s Development, my primary
responsibility is to review, examine, and propose amendments to any Bill
pertaining to Women’s Rights, Empowerment, Welfare and Development referred to
the Standing Committee by the National Assembly. So far, two major bills, i.e.,
Domestic Violence Bill and Harassment at Workplace, among others, were reviewed
by the Committee and sent back to the National Assembly with recommendations.
The Committee regularly examines all other related ministries’ project
commitments, budgets, policies, and procedures and gives recommendations. The
Committee has taken up important public petitions pertaining to harassment at
workplace in major public sector institutions.


TNS:

Which other bills have you moved in the National Assembly?

BG: These are: Child Rights and Protection Act, 2010, Pakistan
Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2010, and Prevention and control of Women
Trafficking Act, 2010.

TNS: Is there a supporting strategy to implement them?

BG: All the above proposed bills have been tabled in the National Assembly and
except for the Child Rights and Protection Act, 2010, which was deferred because
the ministry wanted to bring its own bill, all others have been sent to the
relevant Standing Committees for review. The bill for Promotion of Minority
Rights, Religious Tolerance and Inter-faith Harmony Act, 2010 (Repeal of
Blasphemy Law) has yet to be tabled in the National Assembly.

TNS: Are you lobbying to replicate the formation of the Women
Parliamentarian Caucus in Pakistan on the South Asian level?

BG: We have initiated a process of forming a Women’s Parliamentary Caucus
at the South Asian regional level. The Speaker National Assembly, Ms Fehmida
Mirza, who is patron of the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus, has been leading the
process.

TNS: Could you explain why does the ANP not have an intra-party women’s
wing?

BG: The ANP considers women as equal members with equal space and
opportunity at all levels within the party. This doesn’t mean that women members
in the party cannot have their own organising forum to debate and discuss issues
specific to them before bringing them to mainstream decision-making forums. The
party women members have held women conventions, conferences, and an all-women
jirga on peace and security. Protracted dictatorships, conservatism, religious
extremism, and terrorism have left women’s political participation weak not only
within the party but throughout the country. Under the leadership of Asfandyar
Wali Khan, the ANP has focused on bringing women members at par within the
party. Wings are retrogressive and end up marginalising women’s participation
within the party.

TNS: Is that not contrary to your nomination as a member of the National
Assembly on a reserved seat?

BG: Membership in a women’s wing is not a prerequisite for election to a
National Assembly seat reserved for women. Once elected to the National
Assembly, all members are equal. I don’t see any contradiction. I, however, feel
that there should be a review of the Political Parties Act to improve the
process of election on reserved seats.

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