Abida Hussain sat next to a man

Published: October 5, 2011

Abida Hussain and Talat Khurshid at the ceremony that launched the first Women Political Empowerment Program. PHOTO: US ALUMNI ISLAMABAD CHAPTER

Yesterday I was at the ceremony that launched the first Women Political Empowerment Program, funded by USAID at the Marriott hotel in Islamabad. I never thought that I would attend this event, however, I was persuaded by members of my US Alumni chapter who emailed me, sent me multiple text messages and and called me several times – how could I say no to such perseverance?

As I entered the event, I spotted Fauzia Kasuri, the President of the Women’s Wing of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf. I had met her only once before at the US State Department in Washington DC, during the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women Program. Although Fauzia met me like a long lost friend, I could clearly tell that she hadn’t a clue as to who I was. As the evening progressed, she asked me where we had met before. Kasuri gave me a bear-hug at the recollection and proceeded to invite me to the PTI Head Quarter in Islamabad – she was am absolute pleasure to be around.

The program started with a coma-inducing introductory speech of what politics is, why it is important, how the US is helping us and why political empowerment is vital for women in the developing world. It went on and on. I am sure that the speech  would have been interesting to someone who is keen on politics. For me, however, it was a painful experience.

The guest list included Sandra Houston, the country director for National Democratic Institute (NDI); Dr Catherine Johnson, senior director at the Office of Democracy and Governance, USAID; Jamie Martin, assistant cultural affairs attache, US Embassy; Talat Khurshid, planning advisor at HEC and so on. But just before I could doze off, the biggest surprise of the evening came.

Abida Hussain , a legend in Pakistani politics, was present at the conference! Although I am not one for politics or politicians, this woman is special. Here is the story she told at the conference that made me fall in love with her determination.

In her speech, Hussain stated that she was elected as a member of the National Assembly in 1985. She was the only woman among 116 men, and this was, thus, a bold step in breaking the gender gap. Having been elected, she was distraught to find out she was made to sit with the women on the reserved seats rather then with the men who were seated in alphabetical order. Indignant, Abida Hussain went to the secretary of the parliament and demanded to be treated as an equal to the men.

The secretary meant well, but said the wrong thing:

“Okay, Abida sahiba, you can sit next to your husband.”

Hussain responded by looking at him coolly and said:

“I spend enough time with my husband at home. I would like to be seated in alphabetical order.”

As fate would have it, her name came right next to that of a maulana saheb who was severely offended and demanded that Hussain be asked to sit elsewhere. This time she ended up being seated next to a gentleman who turned to her and said apologetically:

“Look Abida, I am not the alpha-male type, my friends already make fun of my lack of facial hair. Now if I agree to sit next to you when no one else would, it would confirm everyone’s suspicions about my masculinity. So do you mind sitting with someone else?”

Hussain couldn’t refuse this plea. Thus, she decided that she was going to find someone who wouldn’t mind sitting next to her.  Spotting a young man who looked less than 25-years-old (the minimum age for contesting in the NA elections) Hussain went up to him and told him that she knew there was no way he was 25 and if he didn’t let her sit next to him, she would raise the issue on the floor. The young boy was terrified and said he was going to turn 25 in 2 months – such was his fear, that he let Hussain sit next to him without complaint.

The entire room was in fits of laughter at this story.

Abida Hussain’s message struck a cord with me. Before I met her, I would never have guessed that she was so passionate about bringing about change to Pakistani women. Moreover, her determination humbled me. I am more driven than I have ever been, and I wish to contribute more to help Pakistan.

This is why meeting new people and giving everyone a chance is important; you never know what gems you might uncover under all the rubble and sand.

Maria’s original post can be viewed here.


Maria Umar

The Founder of Women’s Digital League. As part of her passion for social enterprise and not-for-profits, she has been working to train and send work to women in the remote valley of Karimabad, Hunza in collaboration with a local NGO and TimeSvr.com. Before founding Women’s Digital League, she taught as an ESL teacher at a private school. Maria holds an M.A. in English Literature and blogs at www.PakiMom.wordpress.com. .

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Ms Marium

    lol – hilarious – i didn’t know tht our parliament had a alpha-male type man – haha ;)Recommend

  • Ms Marium

    Tribune censored my comment ? *face palmRecommend

  • Uzma Khan

    maria beware, our politicians might be good story tellers but still not good peopleRecommend

  • http://www.PakiMom.wordpress.com Maria Umar

    @Uzma Khan:

    This is why meeting new people and
    giving everyone a chance is important;
    you never know what gems you might
    uncover under all the rubble and sand.

    I know nothing about politics and how good or bad she is at it, all I know is she came across as a down-to-earth, warm person who dared to break the glass-ceiling women have to bear in our extremely patriarchal society … and I respect her for that. :) Recommend

  • Asad

    A feudal, with no major acheivement (even for the women causes) and obsession of lota-ism. Don’t take politicians on faceRecommend

  • Rabia Akhtar

    Good job MariaRecommend

  • http://www.PakiMom.wordpress.com Maria Umar

    She can’t help being a feudal just as I can’t help being a tribal. Her achievement is having the guts to contest elections on an open seat from interior punjab and winning. At the risk of repeating myself, I respect her for her strength and courage. Call me naive but I like giving people a chance to be just ‘human’ with no labels. :)Recommend

  • Aamna Shahzad

    I Pray that all the promises these people make while attending these conferences, will ever get implemented!! And may Allah Almighty put some sincere love for the homeland which has made them what they are today…..Recommend

  • Syed Shahid Hussain Gilani

    @Maria Umar:
    Very well written,your assessment of Abida Hussain is so true ,she stands out as a very solid politician given that she has to survive through macho Pakistani culture,i am sure your view will carry well with a lot of us.l Recommend

  • MotiDhoti

    Excellent writing, well done! This never made it onto the front page and an insiders perspective is much better than a journalists approach.

    Also, she has a mans voice. Recommend

  • faraz

    Gender doesn’t matter when it comes to billionaire feudals. I am more impressed by the 60 years old poor lady who washes clothes at my house for just 600 per month. Instead of discussing gender bias at five star hotels, why don’t you distribute the money to the poor peasants who have drowned in floods. Women standing in rows to get free food don’t even have shoes to wear. Recommend

  • Saad

    It is funny how people think that the feudals are so awesomely liberal with their own daughters, they are not!

    Good job Maria, a nice break from the constant politician bashing fiesta we get to hear 24/7.Recommend

  • Parvez

    You’re a softy and I say that as a compliment.Recommend

  • Asma Malik

    Maria this is a fantastic write up!Recommend

  • http://www.PakiMom.wordpress.com Maria Umar

    I have been called a lot of things in life, Parvez, but never a ‘softie’ so … thanks. :) Recommend

  • Ali Tanoli

    Miss Umer
    if u get some time please visit the are called Jhung u will know the reallties of these peer
    and peeranis /……………Recommend

  • http://www.PakiMom.wordpress.com Maria Umar

    @Ali Tanoli:
    she is a public figure and as much as I avoid watching TV I can’t help but know her. I don’t care for her politics or the work she is doing in her constituency, to be very frank. Her being a pir/syeda doesn’t attract me or make me antagonistic towards her. I am only saying it takes a certain amount of courage and determination to be the first woman to get elected on an open seat back in 1980s, to stand up for her right and refuse to be discriminated against based on gender, and to keep her dignity. Plus, when I met her she exuded this warmth that was refreshing in a room full of rich politician begum-ats barely looking at you because you are carrying a bag that’s fraying at the seams. Now I don’t know what was going on in her head and if it was just for show … all I know is she made me feel good. Makes sense? :) Recommend

  • http://www.PakiMom.wordpress.com Maria Umar

    It doesn’t? I am not a billionaire feudal but come from a family of millionaire tribals (notice how I said ‘come from a family’) and I am the only woman to have stepped outside the house to work. Won’t go into details of the challenges I faced. But it’s unfair to stereotype. Cut the lady some slack – she may not have had restrictions on her movement like most women in Pakistan but how many women do you know from her generation that did what she did? Becoming a public figure and meeting issues heads on is never easy, more so when you have had a cushy, comfortable life. Putting yourself at people’s mercy is hard especially when you are a woman and all someone has to do is comment on the shade of your lipstick or the length of your shirt. Of course you are entitled to your opinion … :) Recommend

  • SalZo

    Excellent account… what she say might be true and there is more to her determination than what she says… One has to be clever and smart to survive and succeed… you have to know how to deal with in Pakistan…Recommend

  • http://caffeinedose.wordpress.com Asad

    @Maria Umar:

    “Her achievement is having the guts to contest elections on an open seat from interior punjab and winning”.

    I doubt if somebody even dared to stand against her. Feudalism isn’t something that is born in someone, it’s a mindset of which she is obsessed like other. The reason why Pakistanis have failed, infact failed badly is because they have been giving benefit of doubts to the failed politicians they have already tested…

    “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me………”Recommend

  • http://www.PakiMom.wordpress.com Maria Umar

    I respect your opinion but as I said, I know nothing of her politics. Looking over and beyond her labels she came across as a really nice lady. That’s all I am saying. :) Recommend

  • waqqas iftikhar

    @Maria – interesting anecdote, but you refer to her success from a seat in the interior of punjab – i think its relevant to mention that it was a family enterprise (the seat that is) and although she did win it…I doubt it would have made much of a difference if a woman, man or anything in between was contesting it….her family name guarantees success. I just think that is pertinent to this discussion.Recommend

  • http://www.PakiMom.wordpress.com Maria Umar

    @waqqas iftikhar:
    Success = the fact she took the initiative to enter this field when there were so few women involved. Success = here daring to come into the public eye despite being a ‘feudal’ and ‘not being used to hear any criticism’. Takes courage. Not defending her … I am looking at her as a human being, everyone else as a politician and a peer. :) Recommend

  • Ali Tanoli.

    @ Maria Umer,
    Class of these women dont need any mans protection even in pakistani society i am pakistani too so i know very well this maria sahiba, and what courage u talking about
    these fuedals have any courage then dont they behave like animals to there servants
    or i will called helpers because they help them not serve them i think this was a sense
    i was talking.?/Recommend

  • http://www.PakiMom.wordpress.com Maria Umar

    @Ali Tanoli.: I rest my case. :) Recommend

  • http://swansea Ris

    @Ms Marium:
    Ya they do a lot of censorship. Very wrong.Recommend

  • Syme

    What made her Iron lady? She was the first to contest against an open seat and thats her only achievement.Women of feudal background were part of Pakistan movement. May be pre-partition conditions were better for women than the eighties political scene and that too for a lady who was part of cabinet which was/is an ideological ally of dictator Zia ul Haq and elections were not fair:) Recommend

  • Siddiqui

    @Maria Umar:

    what a narrow criteria judging somebody’s character…
    tanoli has put it correctly…
    such blogs should go under some section from Society Gossip so we can avoid them all together…Recommend

  • Ghulam Mustafa Chaniho

    Maria this woman, despite all her faults is very passionate about woman rights in Pakistan. Abida Hussain is a bigger feminist than many, she literally detests male dominance, don’t believe me?? Ask her gentleman of a Husband, Fakhar Imam.Recommend