At the World Economic Forum, an annual event held in Davos, Switzerland, there is an even called the Pakistan Breakfast. It’s a panel of Pakistanis designed to chat up the country, to further our national obsession with “showing Pakistan in a good light”. That’s all fine, Pakistan has many wonderful things to recommend it and one’s personal skepticism about treating the country like a spinster older sister you’re trying to pitch to a rishta aunty is another column. Done right, the Pakistan Breakfast, sponsored by two private companies, is a great opportunity to showcase current affairs and cultural progress. There’s so much potential in an event like that. This year, the five-member panel included Balochistan’s Chief Minister and the former Chief Justice of Pakistan…and no women. Not a single woman on the Pakistan Breakfast panel. Same as last year, when Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Shahid Khaqan Abbasi were on the panel. Apparently Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy was in the audience, but somehow couldn’t have been asked to sit up front and talk about the social change her documentaries hope to spearhead. A panel like this is called a ‘manel’—a panel with only men on it, and it is increasingly problematic.

If one is, in this particular instance, wanting to project Pakistan in a progressive light, one would have naturally assumed that Pathfinder and Martin Dow, the companies that sponsor the breakfast, would have automatically hunted for a few women to be on board. Surely corporations, with HR departments and international dealings, are more aware of the current global current towards increasing female representation and would have thought to ensure there be at least one woman on the panel. Apparently not, and it isn’t surprising given that Martin Dow, at least, hasn’t got a single woman on its executive board. The Pakistan Breakfast is now a regular feature at Davos, and it is perplexing, to say the least, that nobody has found a single Pakistani woman pass muster.

The manel problem is not just limited to Davos, or Pakistan. Here at home we are routinely treated to photographs of all-men panels that are dedicated to discussing violence against women. In the United States all-men sessions in Congress debate whether women should have access to birth control and abortions. Manels are frustrating and condescending, because they assume that women are not competent enough to be included. Manels assume that women’s voices are not important or relevant, even when it comes to issues that are exclusively only about them. Manels are lazy and ignorant, because they show that whoever organised the panel didn’t do their homework, because for every area of expertise there is a woman who can speak on the subject. Of course there are. Women are doing everything men are, with equal or more competence. They are assembling cars, running ministries, heading companies, drafting policy, writing equations, reciting poetry and sending women and men into space. In this era of internet and social media, where connecting with people is literally a keystroke on Google away, a manel is an ossified, prehistoric relic that should be avoided like the plague it is.

What is the point of discussion in groups? To include diverse voices, expertise and opinions so the solution that is sought is the most efficient, one that takes into account different input and draws the best from all of it. Manels and whatever they seek to discuss are automatically half as good as a real panel, because they have silenced or ignored half of humanity. Why should anyone take a manel seriously? It’s obviously going to be a lopsided, navel-gazing exercise of power speaking to power, and that’s neither interesting, unique or likely to generate new ideas.

It makes one wonder, truly, why patriarchies are so terrified of including women. Is it that easy to threaten male power? Perhaps it is, because the usual signalling men do to intimidate other men may or may not be effective where a woman is concerned. It is also quite obviously originating from the internalisation that women do not belong in public spaces, let alone have any business speaking up in one. The crux of the problem with patriarchy is its extreme reluctance to share power with anyone. A conference or symposium of any kind is a public acknowledgement of expertise and interest, and having women included in them is vital for equitable and balanced intellectual and pragmatic progress. For now, it’s very clear that no ‘soft image’ of Pakistan is ever going to meaningfully exist without Pakistani women being a part of that narrative. Nobody with half a brain will see Pakistan as a progressive, open-minded country when the best it can seem to do is offer up the same tired CEO/bureaucrat /armed forces combination year after year. Even if they want to stick to that format for an economic forum, there are plenty of intelligent, well-spoken women in all of those jobs who would be perfect. All you had to do was ask.


The writer is a feminist based in Lahore.