Mostly clad in white - a colour that signifies minorities in Pakistan - and her red bindi, Mangla Sharma is the first minority woman nominated on a women’s reserved seat in the Sindh Assembly. Sharma is a parliamentarian, policy maker, mentor, researcher, and a trainer. She has been a strong advocate of minority rights since she entered politics in 2001. “I joined politics during the local government elections in Pervez Musharraf’s era. The practical work started when we made an alliance of all the minority councillors and I was made the city councillor. After assuming my responsibilities, I realised the magnanimity of issues that needed our attention, especially regarding women. From social to political to economic issues, the canvas of work was vast and then there was no looking back in the last 18 years.”
Sharma has always been a hard worker and a bright student. She secured second position in Hyderabad Board in Matriculation exams from Govt. Himayat-ul-Islam High School and first position in the Intermediate Board from Sachal Sarmast Commerce College. After that, she obtained her Diploma in Accountancy from Sindh University Jamshoro for which she also secured third position. Even after she had been married, she completed her B. Com (Sindh University Jamshoro) and pursued Masters in International Relations (University of Karachi) following a 10 year break.
This week You! talks to Mangla Sharma about her journey, struggles and responsibilities...
You! How did you get involved in politics?
Mangla Sharma: I entered politics in 2001 during the local government elections in Pervez Musharraf’s era. Being a newly married woman and having no prior political background, I had no idea how to go about it. I had never even casted my vote. However, with my husband’s support, I contested for UC elections then, thus polling my first ever vote for myself. Luckily, I won those elections and was elected as a councillor on minority seats which was a real (pleasant) surprise for my family and I.
You! Do you think the current representation of women in politics is sufficient to resolve their issues?
MS: After joining politics, I realised that the basic reason why women issues still persist is due to the lack of women representation at policy level. Women need to be a part of the decision-making process. For instance, if a government constructs a healthcare centre in a rural area, it hardly takes into account the women health issues, related infrastructure and human resource. Moreover, such centres are devoid of lady doctors and female health workers.
Thankfully, the situation is getting better. The current women representation in national and provincial assemblies is 17 per cent, which is a step in the right direction. It shows that Pakistani women have the talent to prove their mettle in every field; we just need to give them opportunities. There is also the need to change the mindset of men in our society. For example, in rural and underdeveloped areas of the country, women are marginalised on the basis of religion, tradition and customs. A girl marrying at an early age pays the price all her life for her parents, family and kids. Women deserve equal opportunities to improve their conditions.
You! Of late minority issues have taken a very serious turn in the country. How do you think these issues can be resolved?
MS: The minority population had been living peacefully in the country and have never been involved in any sort of scandal etc. However, we can’t deny that there is quite a lot of discrimination against them. I was the first minority parliamentarian to highlight the plight of young girls from minority communities, who were kidnapped and harassed in the name of marriage at the assembly floor.
Another issue that we have raised is of education. There are ads with a disclaimer saying ‘Only Muslims are eligible’ which strips a particular segment of society from opportunities on the basis of their faith. Similarly, minority students face issues because all the entry tests for higher education and job opportunities include a compulsory section of Islamiyat. Students who have memorised the Holy Qur’an get privileges like special marks. Therefore, minority students lag behind in competitive exams and are unable to hold higher positions at jobs. To mainstream minorities in the development process and provide them their basic rights, these policies need to be reviewed. As a board member of ‘Pakistan Hindu Council’ - an organisation that works for minorities - we have built two schools in Thar. Young girls are taught skills such as sewing, beauty courses and computer operation. After the training, we provide them with material to start their own salon or parlours so that they could be financially empowered. We also aim to initiate driving courses for Thari women so that they could drive taxi or rickshaw.
You! Have you ever faced discrimination on the basis of your faith?
MS: Fortunately, I never faced any discrimination from our Muslim majority community. However, I faced severe opposition from my in-laws regarding my political career. We are Brahmans - the highest cast in Hindu religion - and they didn’t expect me to join politics. But, I owe a lot to my late father-in-law who supported me and encouraged me to join politics.
You! You have travelled abroad representing Pakistan. How has been your experience?
MS: I have been to India, Sri Lanka and Thailand to attend international conferences. I have also given interviews to different organisations in India and the people there were surprised to see my success. They could not believe that I was a member of the parliament as they were under the false impression like women only wear burqa and have trouble going outside etc. Recently, I visited Sindh where I met with a visiting Indian delegation. Even they were compelled to say that “Pakistani people are so kind and loving.” Pakistan has always made efforts to mend ties with its next door neighbour. We facilitate people coming here from India but we, as Pakistanis, face many difficulties if we want to visit our religious places in India. Pakistani Hindus live their entire life in the mere hope that one day they will visit the holy places in India like the River Ganges. Unfortunately, due to the difficult visa process, visit is not easy. Here I would say that governments of both the countries should sit together and resolve this issue to facilitate the people.
You! What has been the most defining moment that has stayed with you to this day?
MS: I have always been a bright student and passed all my exams with flying colours. Although, in eighth grade, I participated in a school debate competition for which I wrote the speech myself and was well-prepared for the big day. But, when my turn came, my school principal suddenly said that I “cannot make the speech”. This heart-wrenching experience attached to my first speech is still fresh in my memory. When I became councillor and had to give my first speech, this childhood memory gripped me and my legs were literally shaking at that point. Thankfully, my kids came to my rescue to give me support, and I spoke with confidence. Now, I speak up and raise my voice whenever and wherever needed, without any fear or hesitation.
You! Who is your role model?
MS: I am inspired by many women leaders who made it to the top and one of them is Benazir Bhutto. Her story has inspired and motivated me especially because she also belongs to my city - Larkana.
You! What is next on your agenda?
MS: On personal level, I want to change the general perception of the society about politicians. People think that every politician is corrupt, but that is not the case. I want to be a role model, who people will remember in good words. I also want to prove to the international community that minority women in Pakistan have equal opportunities like any other citizen. They are not suppressed and are supported by the government. My aim is to continue working for women, no matter what religion or faith they belong to. I want them to come forward and sincerely work for the people around them. The first step is always difficult but consistency is crucial for success.