x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

When you see a chance - take it

As a woman in politics it's difficult to strike a balance between taking advantage of opportunities that are given to you as a result of being a woman, without being treated like an empty-headed opportunistic mascot.

The UK prime minister has been having women trouble recently. First, David Cameron told a female MP to "Calm down, dear!" mimicking the strapline from a television commercial. He called another "frustrated", and then joined in with smutty schoolboy giggling with his male colleagues. Accused of being sexist and patronising, he apologised, saying the pressurised environment meant his words came out wrong. But pressure is what reveals your true colours.

At this week's Conservative Party conference he was constantly accompanied by female MPs, hoping no doubt that this would make him seem more women-friendly and less of a "chauvinist pig", as one journalist suggested.

The female MPs have also come in for criticism, being accused of being used by the PM as "eye candy". But I say to them: make the most of the opportunity. All ambitious individuals wait to get the ear of the boss for 30 seconds. Go for it, take your chance, make a pitch and make a difference. This isn't a favour to you - you have every right to be there.

Men should be cautious of selecting women purely because they are women, in order to claim they are promoting the rise of women or to capture the female vote. John McCain did that in the US elections in 2008 by selecting Sarah Palin as his running mate. Boy, did he get it wrong.

Women are not pawns in male power plays. Women are smart and cynical too. Cameron should know that a few photos with the women of his party won't count as evidence that he's in tune with Britain's women, especially as his austerity measures affect them disproportionately.

The media has dubbed Cameron's female MPs as "Cameron's Cuties". This echoes the label given to 101 female MPs elected in 1997 as "Blair's Babes". Blair did nothing to pull up the media on their own sexist patronising descriptor, basking in the glory instead. Cameron should be wiser and challenge the cutie titling.

The Pakistani PM has taken pride in the appointment of Hina Rabbani Khar as the first female minister of foreign affairs. She was elected into her father's constituency when new candidate guidelines meant he could no longer stand. She's had a different start, but now in office, like her British female counterparts she ought to take advantage by exhibiting the right competencies, and quickly move away from the token female positioning bestowed upon her in her case by Daddy's reputation and the overly proud words of her PM.

My worry for Khar is that she may be playing herself into the "cutie" role. In a trip to India it was her sunglasses and Birkin handbag that dominated headlines. It did win her some friends among the elites for being a style icon, however, it underscored the fact that she was in her position on the back of family money, some window dressing for the powerful men of Pakistan.

Pakistan is a country that has gone through one devastating crisis after another in the last few years, and her pricey fashion makes her appear out of touch with her nation. She must avoid living up to the title of eye candy.

As a woman in politics it's difficult to strike a balance between taking advantage of opportunities that are given to you as a result of being a woman, without being treated like an empty-headed opportunistic mascot. The trick is to brush off the patronising labels and make sure that when given an opportunity, you do the best job possible, using the best skills and intelligence.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and writes a blog at www.spirit21.co.uk