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(photo credit: Associated Press)
[ISLAMABAD]—Sania Ashiq, 25, made history last week when she was sworn in as provincial legislator in Punjab Assembly, making her the youngest member of any assembly in Pakistan.
Amid loud clapping and cheering from members of the assembly, Ashiq, an activist for women’s and children's rights, took the oath of office after being elected on August 16. She had been nominated by the PML-N political party, which had dominated the assembly.
Ashiq holds a professional degree in Pharmacy from Pakistan’s 135-year-old Punjab University. She has received national and international recognition for her relentless work on behalf of poor Pakistani women and children.
Known as “Little Messiah” among the women she helped, Ashiq’s work caught the attention of Maryam Nawaz Sharif, daughter of Pakistan’s former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. She was then nominated for one of the seats in the Punjab Assembly reserved for female candidates
Born and raised in Lahore, Ashiq got involved in charity and social work during her college studies. Encouraged by her family and backed by some of the city’s affluent citizens, she launched vocational training programs for poor women in Lahore, a city of 11 million people. The national media and government officials encouraged her to expand her services to other cities in Pakistan, home to 220 million people, 12.4 percent of which live under the poverty line.
Upon entering office, Ashiq vowed to use her influence to work for the betterment of country’s most vulnerable people. "It's a great honor for me to represent my party. I will continue to work for women and children who have not been as blessed by God," she told The Media Line.
Ashiq’s election to the provincial assembly is emblematic of shifting perceptions about the role of women in Pakistani politics, an arena long dominated by men.
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Pakistan was the first Islamic nation to elect a female prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007 but is still considered a role model by many Pakistanis, not just women.
Young and well-educated women like Ashiq have since taken a more active role in the country’s political life. Just before Pakistan’s recent general election, which capped the unlikely rise to power of former cricketer Imran Khan, more women than ever became active in campaigning.
While analysts have praised the country’s larger political parties for encouraging women to join their ranks, they nevertheless argue more needs to be done in order to provide women with decision-making powers.
“It’s encouraging to see well-educated and young females joining politics in a country still influenced by local feudal systems and dynasty politics. Educated women like Ashiq are a catalyst to change,” Khalil Sehar, a noted social worker and philanthropist in Pakistan’s Punjab Province, asserted to The Media Line.
Most seats in Pakistan’s national parliament and four provincial assemblies are occupied by members of elite and wealthy families, whose support is often needed by anyone hoping to enter politics. But Ashiq breaks this trend as she hails from a middle-class family that is not well connected politically.
“Pakistan can only become prosperous when well-educated women like Ashiq join the parliament in large numbers,” Sehar concluded.
Data obtained by The Media Line from Pakistan’s Election Commission revealed a record number of women ran in the general elections on July 25. There were only eight seats open for female candidates in the National Assembly, with a total of 171 women running in the election.
Dr. Allah Bakhsh Malik, the former education secretary of Pakistan’s Punjab province, believes women parliamentarians can play pivotal role in fostering social and economic development in Pakistan.
“Taking up leadership positions, they can serve as champions of change. They represent half the population of Pakistan; therefore, their contribution is essential in transforming the lives of women in Pakistan. It will be important to facilitate their entry into power and to give them the space and support so they can perform at the highest level,” Malik told The Media Line.
Fehmida Mirza, one of Pakistan’s most influential female parliamentarians, urged women to join politics to fight for women's rights. “This is the only way to make progress,” Mirza asserted to The Media Line. In 2008, Mirza became the first female National Assembly speaker in Pakistan’s 60-year history.
Hina Rabbani Khar, another influential female politician elected to Pakistan’s parliament last month, also served as the country’s 21st foreign minister from 2011 to 2013. Appointed at the age of 33, she was the youngest person as well as the first woman to hold the position.
“The role of female parliamentarians is important in terms of raising issues central to women and how they can best serve in public forums,” she told The Media Line.
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