Sunday, June 30, 2013

Going it Alone

Sabahat Zakariya went to independent candidate Saira Dar's corner meeting and ended up musing about middle class morality and the meaning of these elections

My worn Nokia handset peeled its trademark tune on a drowsy Sunday afternoon. A quick peek identified the caller as one Ms. Saira Dar. Bracing myself to hear the worst from a friend who had been a colleague at Aitchison several years ago and with whom the extent of my relationship ever since has been an accidental run-in at the local cinema, I hit the answer button. A call from a friend long missing usually means one thing, divorce-validation - a service divorcees provide as preliminary counselors and water-testers for those contemplating the plunge. Her monumental news, however, turned out to be of a variety I had not anticipated-a breathless announcement of her candidature from my constituency, NA-125. Full marks on the surprise factor. I have lived in NA-125 for the past 17 years but confusion over voter registration and polling stations has meant I have never cast my vote. This year, with an upgraded NADRA infrastructure, calls for registration well within time and a savvy technological network of verification I am finally in a position to take my politics off twitter and into the polling booth. But getting ambushed by an independent candidate wasn't quite how I had envisaged spending my first precious vote. If personal relations be the criteria then my cousin, the PML-N candidate from my constituency, would be the default choice, but my virgin vote was a responsibility I was taking seriously and I had no intentions of casting it away flippantly.

What she lacked in shrewd political planning, she made up for in sincerity of purpose and the ability to deliver a rousing speech

But vote or no, Saira, the former art teacher-turned politician's is an interesting story. Often in our zeal to talk about the more tangible oppression of rural women, the moral niceties that chain the women of the middle class are overlooked with a swift brandishing of their MA degree as incontrovertible proof of their liberation. Those with any insight know the truth to be far more complicated. The unstated expectations of middle class morality are often as binding as feudalistic and overtly religious expressions of absolute forbiddance. To be a wife and mother who is neither the poor worker nor the Birkin-toting daughter of a rich feudal is to swim in a murky netherland of wifely duties and structured expectations that are incompatible with the fluid energy of political life. The allegiance to the middle class code of conduct is threatened by the personal ambitions of a woman with neither the excuse of avenging her father's death nor the luxury of her family's minions conducting her election campaign for her. Saira told me that her intent was initially met with great resistance by her husband and son, on the pretext that she would end up making a fool of herself, but she persisted -from what I could tell once I met up with her - with considerable personal cost to herself. With her poise and refined convent-girl air it was hard for me to imagine her as a hard-boiled candidate who could get down and dirty in Pakistan's murky political arena, but her story intrigued me, and I decided, out of rather selfish reasons - the need to find out more about my constituency and to make an informed decision about my vote - to follow her on her campaign trail.

The next day I rang the bell of Saira's mother's austere house in a shaded old street of DHA Phase 1. One dupatta-clad woman and the candidate herself ushered me into an echoingly empty house. Her mother was away visiting her son in Dubai, providing Saira with 'a room of one's own' to conduct her affairs away from the domestic pressures and naysaying of her husband's place. Piled into her Cultus we set off for Nishat Colony, one of the poorer neighbourhoods of NA-125, where an old family painter of hers had organized a corner meeting. Poking fun at her own lack of resources Saira felt her low budget would be the key to capturing the people's love and trust. Just as I inwardly scoffed a little at her naivette she made a small joke that illustrated her point well:

'I used to have a Suzuki FX a few years ago and this beggar was constantly bothering me with solicitations for money. A huge Prado stood right next to my car, so I asked her why she didn't go beg from them instead, "Magar baaji ghareebaan nu hee ghareebaan daa dard honda ae na" (but sister, only those who are poor themselves can understand the pain of the poor) came the beggar's reply'. Laughing over this anecdote Saira expressed the hope that a similar kindling of solidarity with the poor would propel her to victory in the elections.

By this time (end of April) she still didn't have any pamphlets or posters and the ones she had ordered were sepia; coloured ones being too expensive to afford. She felt that the only areas she could possibly cover were those with some family or friends of her domestic staff and didn't even hope to attempt to visit her whole constituency. No seasoned political journalist myself, even I could tell that this amount of effort was not enough to win a national assembly seat, but here we were passing through the labyrinthine streets of Nishat Colony, festooned mainly with PML-N candidate Kh. Saad Rafique's banners, going to a poor man's house who apparently had enough faith in the woman to have put together a corner meeting for her. Soon we reached the painter's dimly lit, single-roomed quarters in the middle of a narrow alley. A slightly torn poster of Christ plastered on one wall, a couple of chairs and a charpoy neatly placed beside another, and a verandah with cracked cement floors where a couple dozen relatives and neighbours had converged to hear Saira speak. What she lacked in shrewd political planning she made up for in sincerity of purpose and the ability to deliver a rousing speech without becoming a caricature of the dais-thumping politician. The poor people she had come to address seemed swayed by her ideas that centered on working for the welfare of the poor, providing them with education and the vague but effective promise of returning their dignity to them. Obviously pleased and honoured by her visit, most of the women present immediately pledged their vote; female solidarity, something in her manner or the fact that she had 'honoured' them with her presence being enough to convince them to pledge allegiance, making me marvel at the arbitrary nature of these decisions, amongst the poor as well as the educated middle classes who pride themselves on casting their vote on rational and logical bases but often whose own conclusions are no less instinctive and emotional.

A few of those gathered admitted that PML-N's Saad Rafique had helped build the streets around their area but that they still did not want to vote for him since he hadn't 'shown his face' to them in the past five years. As Saira spoke about the need for universal education a man piped up to say that the young lad standing next to him had completed his BA but could not find a job anywhere. The quagmire of degrees but no jobs, streets but no exit from grinding poverty, suddenly seemed too overwhelming and complex to navigate and I couldn't escape the oppressive feeling that to change anything fundamental for these people is a nigh impossible task.

Poorly thought through as it may be, the candidature of someone like Saira Dar is demonstrative of the impetus PTI's emergence as a viable force has given to individuals from normally apathetic, educated urban middle class backgrounds. Suddenly in Pakistan, politics is no longer a dirty word associated with feudals and industrialists alone, independents like Jibran Nasir in Karachi and Saira Dar in Lahore are placing their faith in a system that so far those of their background had considered too broken to even attempt to fix. And there is some hope in just that fact.

Though, in an unguarded moment while talking to me, Dar told me had she felt a sense of empowerment and genuine respect in teaching she might not have taken the political route, a sad reflection on how far we still need to go for the emergence of a genuinely naya Pakistan, one that will emerge from an attitudinal change within ourselves, not just a cosmetic change of leadership.

Published in The Friday Times May 10-16, 2013

1 comment:

  1. Okay to begin with it was an interesting read. Secondly NA-125 that makes you somehow my neighbour.
    And now some serious comments:
    As far as democratic process and electoral politics is concerned we are very much "under age" nation (only if we are a nation) that is why before elections we start looking that the establishment to establish the idea about their supported candidates. And that is a big factor which never lets an independent candidate to do well especially in urban areas. And secondly now when elections have taken place and result is out (moreover, new government is about to complete her honeymoon period) we can see that rationale promises like education and health can easily be superseded by the "developmental" projects.
    I agree with the point that you mentioned about the recent influx of middle class in fact upper middle class (and the class above that) in the political activity is a good sign, another healthy sign was the engagement of youth in the process (and majority of them have taken part in such thing for the first time being grown up during "uncle" MUSHI era) is another positive indicator. I don’t want to name but a political party might have lots of ills (read toll oriented stuff) in it but that has successfully taken many from twitter to actual political playing field. Whatever the result election produced but if the process is allowed to continue then it will refine itself and bring good results.
    Lastly women independence and empowerment: no comments as no matter how much I am in favour of the idea or otherwise I am not an expert on that.