LAHORE -  At the time a woman lawmaker Azma Zahid Bokhari conducted the House proceedings, Speaker Rana Muhammad Iqbal was busy chairing an important meeting in his chamber yesterday. 

Provincial ministers including Law Minister Rana Sanaullah, opposition leader Mehmoodur Rashid and JI’s parliamentary leader Dr Wasim Akhtar were in attendance.

One of the items on the agenda was how to get timely and satisfactory answers from the provincial bureaucracy. Besides its primary job of legislation, the provincial legislature is also supposed to act as a watchdog on the working of provincial departments. But over the years, the Punjab Assembly has consistently lost its space to the bureaucracy mainly because the speaker would not assert himself and the chief minister would not like to empower the elected house.   

As they converged to sort out the issue, the problem was who will bell the cat-the speaker, the law minister or somebody else. They pondered over various options and finally the law minister struck an idea. Why not choose a person from amongst the bureaucrats to do the needful? Everybody liked it. So it was decided to have a meeting with their top boss, the Punjab chief secretary, to resolve the conflict. And when he comes, he would be requested to make it binding on the administrative secretaries to provide timely and correct answers regarding their departments. The chief secretary will also be requested that secretaries should be available to the speaker for periodic meetings on the subject and also ensure their presence in the house on the day assembly takes up questions on their departments.

This is the first serious move from the Punjab Assembly to hold the department heads accountable. The opposition was happy over the decision. It also announced to end boycott of the assembly proceedings following an assurance it got from the speaker that he would run the house in an impartial manner in future.   

Tuesday’s assembly question hour was no different from the previous ones with the only difference that a part of it was conducted under the chair of a woman legislator.

As the replies from the department were not satisfactory as usual, Azma Bokhari directed the health minister to ensure accurate and prompt answers from his department to the satisfaction of the house. 

As she sat on speakers’ podium, everybody liked the changed atmosphere. Women legislators from the Treasury felt free to speak on point of orders and the usual nag was missing for the time being.

The rare presence of a woman on the highest chair raises a relevant question. When will Punjab have a woman elevated to this prestigious office? After all, it remains the only province which never had a woman speaker or a deputy speaker in its political history since 1918.

Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces had a woman speaker and a deputy speaker in their provincial assemblies in 2015. Rahila Hameed Durrani was unanimously elected as the first-ever women speaker of the Balochistan Assembly while KP Assembly elected Dr Mehar Taj Roghani as its first-ever woman deputy speaker the same year. Sindh is also having a woman deputy speaker, Syeda Shehla Raza in its legislature since 2013.

National Assembly also has a history of having a woman speaker and a deputy speaker. It had its first woman deputy speaker in 1973. Mrs Ashraf Khatoon Abbasi, who died in 2014, served as deputy speaker from 1973 to 1977. Dr Fehmida Mirza has the distinction of being elected as the first woman speaker of the National Assembly. She occupied this position from 2008 to 2013.