The women who win

I WANT women to win. I want them to win elections so they can lead countries. I want them to win promotions so that they can lead companies. I want them to overcome obstacles and shatter glass ceilings, demand and command authority. It is a goal that even in this moment of great technological advancement, instantaneous communication and global connectivity, is a somewhat elusive one.

But before I go on to enumerate all the reasons why, a necessary correction must be noted. When I say I want women to win, I mean certain sorts of women; women who advance on the basis of merit, survive on their own skills, reach the summit as a result of their own efforts.

That particular sort of woman, the self-made woman, has been tough to find in the realm of politics. Not very long after its birth, Pakistan had, in Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah, a candidate for president. The sister of the country’s founder contested the election but did not win. But the daughter of an executed prime minister did go on to win some decades later. Until recently, it seemed that another daughter of a now thrice-removed prime minister would again take on the mantle of leadership.

The self-made woman has been tough to find in the realm of politics.

All of them were leaders or came close to becoming leaders, but all three, received a leg up, a halo, an enveloping glow from the fathers or brothers that preceded them and who had laid a foundation or paved a path. Dynastic power can bestow riches and glory on many under its shadow and so it is for women, the fact of their femaleness, otherwise such a burden, mitigated by its beatific glow.

Dynastic politics, and the fact that they have permitted women to rise and lead even within the political sphere, are not of course a particularly Pakistani phenomenon. Next door in India, it was the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru who steered the country, part of a new dynasty built on the legacy of her father. After the daughter came the grandson, with even the granddaughter-in-law making her entry into politics on the basis of what it bestowed. Were it not for the rise of a populist hate-mongering man, the great grandchildren and a granddaughter-in-law might have been in the top office of the land. They may yet find themselves there.

Nor is it simply a South Asian phenomenon. Even as the trauma of Trump makes America reel, it must not be forgotten that the woman who almost became president (who won the popular vote and may well have won the election were it not for the meddling of a former superpower) was also the beneficiary of a man who had come first. This uncomfortable fact has been dissected at length, often by one or another of the many American feminists that had some qualms about the fact and were made uncomfortable by how it poisoned the pot, the narrative of female triumph.

Most made their peace, though; a woman was better than no woman, and Hillary Clinton, it was concluded, had the best chance to beat the odds. Perhaps, some thought, the misogyny of American society — heck, of world society — remained stuck at such high levels that victory without dynasty would be impossible.

We all know how that bet turned out. America elected Donald Trump and now seems deep in the pit of dynastic politics, with son, daughter and son-in-law in plum positions in the White House (and also being investigated, interrogated and raked over the coals by the media). Here, again, is a woman, Ivanka Trump, the fair-haired daughter promising Americans free child-care and hoping her moment in the sun will equal the rising profits for the dresses and shows and baubles she peddles under her own brand. She has her own office at the White House and by virtue of being First Daughter (she is without any other qualification) is likely the most influential woman in the world.

There are many abhorrent facts about women who have risen because of the legacies of their fathers, husbands or grandfathers. One of the most irritating aspects is the assumption that these women somehow represent the best and brightest of their gender. Another fact is that the message it sends to other women, or rather girls, is that without such blessings of birth or marriage, it is not possible to win, to rise, to rule and overrule.

Many who argue in their favour, simply because they are women, insist that supporting those women who are available as leaders may not be the best option, but it is, as it happens, the best option. There is a simple problem with this premise: it is not perfection that the rest of us demand from the women which we wish to support; it is the fact that in supporting those who have climbed with the assistance of birth and marriage, we ignore those who have risen on merit. That is the evil that cannot be ignored.

It is always difficult to discuss an issue that is related to women in a forum that is open to men. It goes without saying that many men, alert as they are to any chance to deride Pakistan’s female half, will jump at any opportunity to do so here. For them, a woman saying that some women deserve power more than others is an opportunity to underscore the general unfitness of women. In doing so, they will provide an apt illustration of why women don’t win, why the tremendous united force of their hatred ensures that the hardworking woman, the self-made woman, the woman who should win, does not in fact win.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, August 2nd, 2017