On Speaker stage, two ladies bond

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By SANJAY K. JHA
  • Published 6.01.10
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New Delhi, Jan. 5: Munching sandwiches, Meira Kumar and Fahmida Mirza have become friends and discovered a lot in common.

Both are first women Speakers of their countries, Meira of India and Fahmida of Pakistan.

Both hail from political families. Meira is the daughter of the late Jagjivan Ram, a former defence minister and deputy Prime Minister. Fahmida is married to a senior leader of the Pakistan People’s Party, Zulfikar Ali Mirza, who is a close associate of President Asif Ali Zardari.

Both had successful careers before joining politics. Meira, 64, was a diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service, Fahmida, 53, was a doctor.

In their current job as Speakers, they share a problem — that of unruly parliamentarians.

Today, they hugged and sat at the same table, displaying a frame of bonhomie that has eluded their countries.

Fahmida is the Speaker of Pakistan’s National Assembly who is in India for the first time to attend the 20th Conference of Speakers and Presiding Officers of the Commonwealth.

The two Speakers instantly struck a rapport over paneer pakoras, sandwiches and pastries at Vigyan Bhavan.

Fahmida was the most talked-about delegate. First, because she is a rare story of women’s empowerment from a religiously conservative country. Second, she is almost a look-alike of the late Benazir Bhutto and many at the conference felt compelled to comment on the likeness.

Fahmida knew the importance of her gender and chose to speak on this subject, refusing to discuss the climate of political turmoil in Pakistan, which carries the infamy of being the only country to have been suspended twice from the Commonwealth owing to destabilisation of its democratic system.

Fahmida agreed democracy had not taken deep roots in her country, but hoped political parties would seriously work towards this objective now. She also asked the global community to assist Pakistan in protecting its fragile democratic set-up.

She spoke freely about fighting gender bias and referred to the parliamentary caucus of women MPs that she started in Pakistan.

“I have talked to Meira Kumar regarding a regional forum for women parliamentarians to work for the welfare of South Asia. She is keen to set up such a forum in India first. This forum would have women members from all the parties. We should also organise frequent exchanges between women parliamentarians of the two countries.”

It will be a great move when the women’s reservation bill, now pending in the Indian Parliament, is passed, she said. Pakistan, which has 60 out of 342 seats in the National Assembly reserved for women, should also strive to reach the 33 per cent target, Fahmida added. “We cannot leave 50 per cent of the population out of the political process,” she said on the sidelines of the conference.

Women politicians, Fahmida said, were “peace loving” and “not corrupt”. “Women bring a soothing influence. Women are peace loving and not corrupt. People admit in Pakistan that the National Assembly has functioned more smoothly after my becoming the Speaker. Most of the important bills have been passed unanimously,” she said.

She laid stress on the need for people-to-people contact. Regular interaction between women parliamentarians will help a great deal, she said.

“I have shared my views with Meira Kumar. I was very happy when she became the Speaker and wrote to her at that time. I hope she will take the initiative on this front.”