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May 5, 2020

Women in power

Opinion

May 5, 2020

The role of female leaders during the pandemic has received a great deal of attention in the global media. The prime minister of New Zealand has received the most praise for not just flattening the Covid-19 curve, but annihilating it altogether.

Other countries with women leaders who have raised the bar include Germany, Finland, Taiwan and Iceland. Canada’s chief public health officer and minister for health are both women, as are the majority of the country’s provincial chief health officers, all successfully leading the efforts against the pandemic.

Here in Pakistan, we have Prime Minister Imran Khan, and the religious ulema, who are now being allowed to hold the country to ransom. And a population totally out of control during the deadliest human catastrophe the world has ever seen.

So, would the Covid-19 response in Pakistan or elsewhere have been any better if it had been led by a female leader?

Granted, the majority of the world’s leaders at this moment are male, and each is struggling against the disease in their own way, including the oft-quoted example of China. But the US and the UK have both shown how male arrogance not only miscalculated the impact of the pandemic, but seriously jeopardized its response as well. Male leaders have been called “incompetent science-denialists”, and been consumed more with the economy than with human lives. So really, Pakistan is not alone in this category.

But for us, an even more important question to ask would be, would Pakistan even give a chance to women to take up positions of political power, let alone lead the country? For a country which has always bragged about having the first elected woman prime minister in the Muslim world, tragically, this question should no longer even be asked. But seeing how the past turned out, it is a question we are continually having to ask, but without receiving any clear answers. From our leadership, as well as from our citizens.

Pakistan’s political leadership, as well as the majority of its citizens, have never been encouraging towards having women in positions of power, or towards women at all for that matter. The pandemic response in Pakistan does have some women at the forefront. But their effectiveness has been marred by both a lack of public empathy and scientific advice – the two most effective traits identified in women who are leading their countries out of the crisis.

The two very public female faces during the pandemic in Pakistan have been Dr Sania Nishtar and (till recently) Firdous Ashiq Awan and they have not been seen to be independently leading the way in their very important portfolios – the Ehsaas Programme and public communication and information, respectively.

Tania Aidrus, Pakistan’s newly minted public data expert, is an exception as she quietly compiles factual data on the pandemic behind-the-scenes. However, there is also concern about how reliable the data is and how effectively it is being used to monitor the outbreaks. Likewise, Sindh Health Minister Dr Azra Pechuho is also a prominent face leading the response in the province.

So again, would a female leader have been more effective in Pakistan? The answer lies not so much in viewing the question in a gender-equality based scenario than in a socially motivated one.

The female leaders who generated success in containing and managing the virus, not only did so because they knew what advice to listen to and how and when to act upon it. But because they also had a citizenry who respected women as leaders.

No matter how compassionate, competent and strong a woman we may have to lead the nation, Pakistan’s animosity towards women will perhaps never let her be a success. Because this animosity or insecurity towards viewing women as equals, is one that is lodged not just in the psyches of men in high positions or feudal landlords, but also in the mind of every male scattered across the nation. From lofty castles in Bani Gala and Raiwind, to the humble shacks in the interior of our provinces. Resistance to women has not only defined the existence of men in Pakistan, it has endangered them towards women.

But the examples of leadership women have shown in Pakistan, in science, technology, sports, the arts and politics, may be scattered and subdued, are nevertheless numerous. Their success in times of strife is clear in their literal acts of survival undertaken on a daily basis against misogyny and violence.

So yes, a female leader would definitely have managed and contained the outbreak more efficiently. But would she have been allowed to function efficiently in a society such as ours still remains the key question. None can answer that more truthfully than the female SHO in Karachi who was recently attacked for stopping Friday congregational prayers under government orders – and then reprimanded for doing her job.

Suffice it to say, when men sit silently on live national television, while religious clerics hold “shameless women” responsible for the pandemic, I would take a woman to lead me out of the darkness any day.

The writer is an independent researcher in international development, social policy and global migration.