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Politics As Unusual For A Pakistani Woman Amid The Taliban

Pakistani member of parliament Bushra Gohar (right) visiting a camp of Internally Displaced persons in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.
Pakistani member of parliament Bushra Gohar (right) visiting a camp of Internally Displaced persons in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.
By Farangis Najibullah and Farkhanda Wazir
With her short blond hair, penchant for driving her own car, and outspoken views, Bushra Gohar has always stood out in a crowd.

This is especially the case considering her upbringing -- she hails from Jhandha, a village nestled in Pakistan's Pashtun heartland in the northwestern province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa -- and her occupation.

The 50-year-old Gohar is a member of Pakistan's parliament, which is not groundbreaking on its own considering that by law at least 20 percent of the legislature is made up of women. But Gohar stands out because of her humble beginnings and the high-ranking position she has attained as a deputy of the Pashtun secular-nationalist Awami National Party (ANP).

Her choice of career was certainly unorthodox for a woman in the region's male-dominated conservative society. But Gohar always dreamed of promoting women's rights in all aspects, from their role inside the family to their participation in the highest levels of political decision-making, and that eventually led her to public office.

Bushra Gohar's political activity has seen her subjected to death threats.
She made her dreams come true by getting a university education in the United States before returning home to set up her own women's NGO. In 2008 she took the next step by running for a seat in Pakistan's parliament, which she won and still holds today.

The Pashtun politician's road to success has been fraught with danger, however. The Taliban's influence in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province has risen significantly in recent years, presenting a formidable obstacle to her meeting with constituents.

Taliban militants' attacks on everything secular -- from music stores to public schools and government offices -- have become a bitter everyday reality in much of western Pakistan.

Nonetheless, women remain the most vulnerable to the Taliban's hard-line rule.

Hundreds of girls schools have been destroyed and or burned down by the militants. Working women have been forced to leave their jobs and wear the hijab.

"I received a written threat from the Taliban demanding that I leave politics," Gohar says.

The militants usually carry out their threats. At least three high-ranking politicians have been assassinated by the Taliban in the province since 2008. Two others narrowly escaped suicide attacks.

This is cause for most women to think twice before venturing outside the home to get a job, let alone a public position. But Gohar is adamant that she will continue her career in politics in defiance of Taliban threats.

"I have no intention of leaving politics because of the death threats I get," she says. "We all die one day, with or without the Taliban attacking us."

Humble Background

Residents of the village of Swabi say Gohar won their respect for helping the region get government funds for the construction of roads and much-needed power lines.

Gohar's main focus, however, remains women's issues, especially the education of girls. Gohar says neither the warnings from the militants nor other societal pressures should inhibit Pasthun women's participation in public life, including going to school or getting a job.

"During my election campaign in rural communities in Swabi district, I was surprised how housewives were interested in politics and they knew so much more about politics than many men," Gohar says of her 2008 campaign. "They would tell me they wanted opportunities to improve their lives."

Bushra Gohar talking to school children at a school near Peshawar

Years later, Gohar continues to try to meet those expectations, most recently by convincing local authorities to build a women's sports center in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

Unlike many women politicians in Pakistan, Gohar does not belong to any political family or dynasty. The youngest daughter of a retired army colonel, Gohar is the only one in her family to pursue a career in politics.

"Gohar has always been different to any other girl in the rural area where she grew up, and that difference wasn't only in her sense of style or haircut," says Sadia Qasim, a journalist from Swabi District.

"Even long before entering politics, Gohar was a constant fixture at protest rallies demanding greater rights for women," Qasim says. "In 2005 she was among outspoken critics of a bill aimed to introduce Shari'a laws in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province."

Gohar's political plans now go beyond her native province. The girl from the remote Jhandha wants to change the way women's roles are perceived in Pakistani politics.

"Apart from the ANP, all political parties in our country have so-called women's wings. They give women a quota, which is not a bad thing in promoting women's participation," Gohar says of the 20 percent mandate.

"But I don't see the quotas as a privilege for women. We should work toward building a society that recognizes people on their merit, regardless of their gender. To achieve that goal we need to give women equal opportunities."

High-Flying Women

Gohar welcomed the recent appointment of several women from the ruling Pakistan People's Party to "more serious top jobs" such as the finance, foreign affairs, and justice ministers.

"Previously, women would only get appointed to the social welfare department," Gohar says.  "Now, the speaker of parliament is a woman, and several important parliamentary committees are chaired by women."

According to Qasim, women from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province want to see Gohar do more.

Female politicians such as Gohar are in a unique position to highlight the numerous problems faced by women, says the journalist from Swabi.

Qasim does have some criticism for Gohar, however, saying she focuses too much on "development issues, such as renovation of roads or gas and electricity shortages."

Qasim suggests Gohar should focus more on local practices affecting women's lives, such as honor killings, domestic violence, and the tradition of handing over a woman to an "enemy's family to settle feuds."

"There are many similar practices and customs, which female lawmakers should [fight by engaging] in lawmaking and changing laws so that women's situation as a whole could change."

For her part, Gohar says she joined politics so she could help bring changes to people's lives, and is content with the life and the career she has chosen. 

But that doesn't mean it has not come at a personal cost; she has never married and has no children. "In my line of work, I found it simply impossible to find a balance between family life and a career in politics," she says.
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by: John from: London
October 07, 2011 08:55
Gohar is a brave Pashtun woman who should continue her struggle. The political party she comes from is hit hard by the militants who killed hundreds of its supporters over the last few years.

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