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Reading Room: Power Failure, The Political Odyssey of a Pakistani Woman

11 Dec 2017
Reviewed by Dr Flavia Bellieni Zimmermann

This is a powerful narrative, providing an insider’s perspective to events of relevance in Pakistan’s history and politics as well as the overarching worldview in traditional male-dominated societies.

Power Failure: The Political Odyssey of a Pakistani Woman is an autobiography by Syeda Abida Hussain, and the title is a well-suited one.

Hussain was the only child of a former Pakistani politician, coming from a well-known Indian political dynasty. She is “a year older than Pakistan, one of midnight’s children, born to privilege and a contingent sense of entitlement”. She grew up in a post-colonial society divided into East and West Pakistan. Her tale is one of an aristocratic upbringing; she spent most of her early days in a Swiss school run by Roman Catholic nuns and later, spent significant time in European cities such as Florence, Cambridge and London. Hussain explains how her upbringing and exposure to different ways of living shaped her into an independent thinker and a natural leader. Her narrative lays bare the tensions existing between her modern upbringing and traditional Pakistani values.

In this book, Hussain throws light on the contradictions between her personal and political ambitions and cosmopolitanism and her traditional family values. Her family expected her to marry a man of their choice to gain respectability in Pakistani society. Thus, her marriage was arranged in the late 1960s to Syed Fakhar Imam Shah, who also entered politics in Pakistan. Hussain argues that there would have been no future for her as a single Pakistani woman in local politics given Pakistan’s culture of family honour and deeply ingrained patriarchal values.

With the passing of her father, her ambition to run as a representative in her local province came to be fulfilled. However, this was not readily acceptable in Pakistani politics. Hussain argued her case before the former Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s. In her own words, “I love the land and the people. I have broken with tradition in some ways and upheld it in others. It is a male-dominated society but women like me will prove that if women work hard enough, we can elevate ourselves to achieve and score.” Eventually, her persuasive rhetoric and family origins secured her a place in the political limelight.

This was the beginning of a grand political journey. Hussain provides a vivid account of her main challenges, particularly during her early years as an attractive female politician navigating the patriarchal realm of Pakistani politics.

Regardless of pressing challenges, dilemmas and prejudices, her career left behind an important legacy in Pakistani history. She became a member of the Parliamentary Assembly in 1972 and a member of the National Assembly of Pakistan in 1985, breaking local tradition and taboos. Additionally, this book unravels the complexity of class divisions in Pakistan and the existing intersections of gender and class, as Hussain’s pedigree and access to an aristocratic upbringing were the main factors behind her opportunity to run for local politics.

Hussain evolved into a moderate and independent political figure in Pakistan, witnessing the formation of political parties as well as the rise and fall of political personalities. She provides a glimpse of the complex world of Pakistani politics through the lens of an insider who, despite her privilege and prestige, showed compassion towards the people.

Power Failure makes for an engaging read from cover to cover. Later in her political career, Hussain’s defeat in Pakistani politics led to a well-deserved appointment as the first female Pakistani ambassador in Washington DC (1991-1993). This book provides a unique perspective to key historical and political developments in Pakistan in the early post-Cold War era and chronicles the difficulties involved in representing Pakistani interests and people in the United States. This part of the book is of great relevance to international relations scholars and those with an interest in Pakistan-US and Pakistan-India relations. Hussain provides great insight into Pakistani strategic interests in the region, nuclear proliferation, Pakistan-Indian tensions over Kashmir and the role played by American foreign policy in the rise of ideological militant Islam during the Cold War and the first Afghan War.

The final part of the book narrates the proximity between Hussain and former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto from her time as the leader of the opposition in the 1990s to the day of her assassination in December 2007. Additionally, Hussain fills her autobiography with anecdotes and her own personal impression of world leaders such as Bhutto and members of the British royal family including Queen Elizabeth II and the late Princess of Wales, Lady Diana Spencer.

Hussain’s writing style is captivating, compelling and easy to read; this book would be of interest not only to international relations scholars but also to a more general audience.  Additionally, those interested in post-colonialism, South Asian politics, history and the role of gender and class in domestic politics would find value in this publication. Hussain provides an overarching, complex and humane view of local and international issues, shedding light on the inherent complexity of Pakistani society and the abyssal divide between the haves and the have-nots in South Asian societies.


Syeda Abida Hussain, Power Failure: The Political Odyssey of a Pakistani Woman, Oxford University Press, 2015. ISBN-10: 0199401578. ISBN-13: 9780199401574


Flavia Bellieni Zimmermann is a sessional academic and PhD candidate with the School of Social Science at the University of Western Australia’s Centre for Muslim States and Societies. She is on the council of AIIA for WA and is a commissioning editor for Australian Outlook.