Commentary Magazine


Pakistan’s Glitzy New Government

Pakistani-American women may soon be compelled to embrace humility and subservience in larger and larger numbers. But the women of Pakistan’s new political elite are unfazed. In a curious article—part political analysis, part red carpet dish—the AP’s Lauren Frayer offers a glimpse of what representative government looks like amid the violent changes in Pakistan.

In the last parliament, about a dozen female lawmakers from the religious alliance wore body-shrouding black veils that concealed everything except their eyes.

But as parliament elected its first female speaker Wednesday, just a single lawmaker — one of 74 women in the 342-seat house — covered her face with a light beige wrap. Others wore traditional flowing gowns, some with bare heads and others with their hair only partially covered by loose scarves.

Fehmida Mirza, a medical doctor, is the first woman elected as National Assembly speaker in Pakistan’s 60-year history.

Half a dozen other female lawmakers touched her shoulders as Mirza, wearing a diamond nose ring and an elegant lavender tunic embroidered with silver rosettes and a deep V-neck, rose to take her oath.

“We are writing a new chapter in history,” she said, diamond-studded pearl droplet earrings and a pouf of dark hair springing out from under her sheer veil. She repeatedly touched her forehead in a gesture of thanks to her peers a thick gold bracelet sliding down her arm.

“Benazir’s dream has come true,” said fellow party member Farzana Raja. “We have proven we’re not only chanting slogans for women’s empowerment — we’re taking practical steps,” she said, shoving the designer sunglasses back on her head and letting her headscarf slip off.

“Benazir” is, of course, the late Benazir Bhutto. And while her political dream was indeed heavy on female emancipation and glam, her historical relationship to governance was always accessorized by entitlement and corruption. The question at hand is: to what extent will that part of the Bhutto legacy live on? Ms. Frayer spoke with a number of people who objected to the ostentation of upper-class politicos in a country so wracked with want. A good deal of what she describes (gold-trimmed SUV’s, for instance) is troublingly reminiscent of Saudi decadence. But it is important to note that the new, bejeweled parliament is at least free of Wahhabist sentiments. And all that bling is evidence of an increasingly secular Pakistan. Ms. Frayer spoke to a police officer who summed up the situation:

“Islam doesn’t allow women to unveil themselves, but the atmosphere in Pakistan is changing day by day. You can see it in the fashion here,” he said, requesting anonymity because he was not allowed to speak to the media.

“It’s a bit of a charade, but it’s also a big sign of democracy and hope,” he said.

The forging of a consensually-governed Pakistan can allow for a little charade. As long as they don’t lose sight of the democracy and hope.