A Medieval Cabinet 

By Malik Siraj Akbar

Once, people laughed at Abdul Quddus Bizenjo [Baluchistan’s newly elected chief minister] for getting only 544 votes in the 2013 general elections but still ending up as the Speaker and the Chief Minister of Pakistan’s largest province. Now, they are mocking him again for picking up a 14-member all-male cabinet to jump-start the “new government.” Critics wonder what he was thinking when he chose his cabinet without considering including even a single woman. Why would he not think that the Baluchistan cabinet would look like the Taliban cabinet if he decides to have an all-male cabinet?

This is the 21st century, but Mr. Bizenjo seems to be entirely out of touch with our rapidly changing world. By no means can he describe his government as democratic or inclusive if he decides to exclude the voices of 50% of the population. We were all wrong thinking that the Taliban or/and Mr. Bizenjo have changed and matured with time, but they have shown with their actions that they continue to possess a medieval mindset that does not recognize women’s right to participate and engage in discussions on crucial national policies. 

Sadly, women have been used as mere symbols in the parliament and the cabinet in the past to give the impression that the government believes in women’s rights and inclusion. Astonishingly, even this thought did not occur to Mr. Bizenjo as to how big a public relations disaster this could be for his government if he proceeded with an all-male cabinet.

It does not seem that neither Mr. Bizenjo nor anyone from the group of 14 members in his cabinet or any of his advisors and secretaries thought for a second that this would not reflect well on the entire province. A cabinet without women would miss so many critical perspectives that male ministers cannot understand or represent. 

In fact, if Mr. Bizenjo had the vision, he would include women in his cabinet and bring an end to the traditional practice of giving female members of the provincial assembly ‘soft ministries’ such as the portfolio of social welfare, culture, or human rights. We should instead be asking why Baluchistan (or other provinces) has not elected a female chief minister yet? Women should be trusted with more “tough ministries” such as Interior and Finance to shatter the mindset recently displayed by the Deputy Commissioner of Kech while telling a senior female protester to keep quiet because so many men were already doing the talking.

Coming back to the issue of women’s representation in the provincial assembly, one cannot be sympathetic with the protest of Ms. Bushra Rind, a member of the current assembly, who sarcastically congratulated “the most [male] dominating cabinet of Pakistan.” She went on to complain that “this man,” whom she previously worked with and defended at every stage, “only talk about women empowerment…Balochistan will flourish in this man dominating society.” Meena Baloch, a BAP supporter, remained nostalgic about the former chief minister Jam Kamal: “Not only he gave women a share in the cabinet but also gave them opportunities everywhere on the basis of equality, which is why I respect Jam Sahib from the bottom of my heart.”

MPA Mahjabeen Sheran, also from the ruling Baluchistan Awami Party (BAP), vented genuine frustration with Bizenjo’s decision: “It is a big, fat depiction that patriarchy is alive and well. It’s happening at a time when women participation in public & political affairs is the need of the hour.”

What’s going on here? Time for some reflection.

Every one of these female members of the provincial assembly was not known on Baluchistan’s political arena until the pro-establishment BAP was formed. That’s where the real problem begins: A lot of political parties select women, mostly related to existing members of the provincial assembly or key party leaders, to fill the seats reserved for women. Hence, the Baluchistan Assembly is currently filled with female MPAs with no political background who go whichever way their male leaders decide. This practice pre-dates the BAP. The Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-e-Azam, a party of General Musharraf, popularized this culture wherein the ruling party purchased women’s voices in return of representation in the parliament and ministries. This is why some women have held key positions in the provincial administrations, but they hardly had a political background before landing straight into the local assembly. 

In recent times, General Musharraf is credited for pioneering this trend in Baluchistan. He picked up Zubaida Jalal, a social worker who had earned praise for setting up a girls’ school in the Pakistan-Iran border town of Mand, as his federal education minister. Ms. Jalal had previously not held any political office, but her selection generated hopes across the province that if you developed a soft image and remained in Islamabad’s good books, you could go a long way. Interestingly, twenty-two years later, Ms. Jalal is still a federal minister in Imran Khan’s cabinet, although President Musharraf is gone, Prime Minister Jamali is dead, and Shaukat Aziz is somewhere unknown.

The Zubaida Jalal playbook comes with an unwritten convention for Baluchistan’s young women:

  • Don’t ruin your resume.
  • Don’t attend any “anti-Pakistan” rallies.
  • Don’t criticize the Army.
  • Pretend there are no missing persons in Baluchistan
  • Pretend Gwadar has clean drinking water and CPEC [China-Pakistan Economic Corridor] is a game-changer
  • Tweet “positive stories”; retweet anything related to Baluchistan tourism and “unfollow” Mama Qadeer types
  • Always be positive. Someday, you will be an MPA or a senator

While the list of hopeful female MPAs that religiously adheres to this playbook has continued to grow over the years, the prolonged conflict in the province has still given birth to a generation of fierce female organizers and agitators. Much to the Establishment’s chagrin, all these young activists went to the opposite camp instead of joining the government’s lucrative base. They joined human rights groups like the Voice for the Missing Baluch Persons to campaign against human rights abuses in the province or joined the pro-independent Baluchistan movement.

Imagine how the Baluchistan Assembly would look if its female members could roar like the late Karima Baluch or the tireless campaigner Farzana Majeed. It is not as if Baluchistan has not produced these immensely articulate female activists. It’s just that Islamabad has been able to silence and quickly replace Baluchistan’s authentic female voices.

Back in Quetta, an all-male cabinet looks embarrassing even from a staunchly pro-establishment perspective. Mr. Bizenjo must do whatever it takes to fix this colossal blunder. In the long-run, real leadership comes from organizing at the grassroots level. There is no support and patronage from the Establishment that can transform a person from a nobody to an overnight leader. Young aspiring politicians should know that the Establishment can make you a senator, a minister, but it cannot make you a leader. You become a leader by earning the trust and respect of your people.

The writer is the editor of The Baluch Hal

Categories: News & Analysis

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