Those applauding the election of Kamala Harris, the first woman Vice President of the United States would do well to look at South Asia, the region where her mother was born.
The region hasan array of women leaders from Sri Lanka’s Sirimavo Bandarnaike and Chandrika Kumaratunga to India’s Indira Gandhi and Bangladesh’s Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, stretched to Myanmar’s Aung San Syu Kyi.
That these women leaders were assassinated (Bandarnaike, Gandhi and Benazir) or their close family members were killed (Chandrika, Hasina, Khaleda and Suu Kyi) underscores the risks involved in women joining or being pushed into public life by circumstances. And threat to life of self or the kin is only one of the dangers.
In that context, one cannot but add the name of Sonia Gandhi who, though Italian-born, married into India’s first political family, who saw two family members, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, her mother in law and then, her husband, Rajiv Gandhi, assassinated.
In that context, the political debut of Aseefa Bhutto Zardari, daughter of Benazir Bhutto, who vowed the crowds at a rally in Multan, Pakistan, should be of obvious interest to anyone looking at South Asia.
In Aseefa’s case, circumstances seem to have conspired to launch her into public life amidst a raging Covid-19, at a rabble-rousing rally like the one in which her mother was assassinated in December 2007.
Covid-19 couldn’t but be a reminder since she was chipping in for her brother, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Chairman of the Pakistan peoples’ Party (PPP), who went into quarantine on being tested positive.
For PPP and Bilawal, the Multan rally was crucial in that they had competed with other stake holders in the 11-party Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), especially the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), to play the hosts. Although currently allies, they have vital stakes in Pakistan’s southern Punjab region in and around Multan.
It was essential for the Bhutto Zardaris to show that they had not baulked, having picked up the political gauntlet amidst many government-imposed restrictions. Initially, it was announced that Bilawal would address the rally through video link. Fielding Aseefa, instead, was a bold move.
Since one is looking at these siblings, there is bound to be more than cursory interest in India that has many a siblings of political families. Of them, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra of the Congress are the most prominent and remain subjects of constant speculation in and out of the party organisation.
Another point of comparison is the likeness – of Priyanka with her grandmother Indira and Aseefa with mother Benazir. Like the Indian commentators, this may now be the turn of those in Pakistan to speculate on the possible political gains that could accrue to their respective parties.
To return to Multan, it is significant that at the rally, Aseefa referred to mother Benazir and to Bilawal: “I have come among you today at a time when my brother, your brother, Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari is suffering from coronavirus. I hope that just like you supported the mother of democracy and the daughter of the east, you will support Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari on PDM’s platform. And I promise that I will support Chairman Bilawal and you at every step.”
The last line could well be expression of solidarity to quell any speculation of her competing with Bilawal. Whoever designed it may have had in mind the other star speaker at the rally, Maryam Nawaz, daughter of thrice-ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and vice president of the PML (N).
Maryam is often seen as being in rivalry with cousin Hamza, son of Shahbaz Sharif, Nawaz’s younger brother and former Punjab Chief Minister. To counter this, Maryam has in speeches and interviews always taken care to refer to her cousin as ‘bhai’.
British born and educated Aseefa could face comparisons /competition from other Bhutto-Zardari women. Faryal Talpur, father Asif Zardari’s sister, for one, influenced the party decisions when Bilawal was a young student. Fatima Bhutto, a cousin from mother’s side is a well-regarded writer who has been critical of Benazir whom she blames for the death of father Murtaza.
At the rally, Aseefa spoke on behalf of her family and the women in the party who she said will “step out to the streets” to work for democracy. So, the women’s angle is strong and deliberately designed.
The atmospherics and the political significance of the rally is summed up by Asha’ar Rehman (A Passage to Multan, Dawn, December 4, 2020). He calls the Multan rally “the most significant one” among five held so far.
“These were good signs for the PPP. And then there was Aseefa. The daughter of Benazir Bhutto who already has an aura about her was to make her ‘debut’ in politics from the Multan stage. This was an occasion in itself, an occasion for reminiscing and being nostalgic, an occasion to compare and match and distinguish Aseefa with and from others.”
Interestingly, Maryam, 47, and Aseefa, two decades younger, were both dressed in elegant blue Multani Kashigari, their heads neatly covered. Both spoke spiritedly to the cheers of the large audience. Pitching for her exiled father, Maryam has become a veteran. But she appeared to yield space to Aseefa, the surprise debutante, in terms of public response and social media fervour that followed this rally.
The social media discourse over Aseefa’s speech was ecstatic, so much so that ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) leader, Ali Khan Tareen, son of high-profile politician Jahangir Tareen, said to be a close confidante of Prime Minister Imran Khan, weighed in on Aseefa’s political debut saying: “political differences aside, she’s pretty cool”.
Clearly, glamour quotient is high for someone from a known political family, especially a woman. This is by and large absent in Imran Khan’s PTI, although there is no dearth of women leaders and lawmakers. Khan himself he retains his own image as a former star cricketer while his spiritually inclined wife observes purdah.
But like anywhere else, there are also serious limitations for women in Pakistan’s public life. They constantly dodge the minefields of being judged as individuals, the way they dress, their public and perceived private behaviour, their ‘tehzeeb’ as family persons and these days, being trolled on the social media.
Maryam and all other women in Pakistan, irrespective of age, face /suffer this daily. Dr Shireen Mazari, currently Minister for Human Rights, was called “tractor trolley”, ostensibly a reference to her appence, in the National Assembly. A saree-clad lady presiding officer was asked by a male member in the House to “dress properly” in ‘traditional Pakistani attire.
It is unlikely that Aseefa’s debut in Multan will be a one-off affair. It may well be her turn to get into the rough and tumble of life as a political leader, if not now, at a later stage.