What is a manel? Allow the Karachi Literature Festival to explain. 

On February 21, someone took a screenshot of the KLF’s description of their panel discussion on “Financial Inclusions and Women Empowerment” and uploaded it on Twitter. 

The panel list read like a who’s who of the Pakistan’s finance scene: State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) Governor Reza Baqir; Planning Minister Asad Umar; former SBP Governor Dr Ishrat Hussain; and Habib Bank President Muhammad Aurangzeb.

Amazingly, despite being a talk about women, the panel included no women. 

Please let us take a moment to appreciate the irony here. Despite being an event about being inclusive towards women, the panel managed to somehow be exclusive of women. The KLF’s thinking was: why do you need women to talk about women?

Twitter’s outrage paid off. As a form of mitigation and damage control, the organizers quickly looked for women to bring on board for the panel, and brought in one woman, Ayesha Aziz, the CEO and Managing Director of Pak Brunei Investment Co Ltd.

There was no way that we were not going to attend this ‘manel + 1’, held at the Karachi Beach Luxury Hotel on March 1. We are the only two young female financial and economic journalists writing in English in Karachi, as far as we can tell. We have had men explain to us what interest rates are, despite us both being economics majors from IBA and Yale respectively; and yes we do know how to calculate CAGR. (compound annualised growth rate). Our bread and butter is finance reporting, despite men’s incredulity; and these are our thoughts.

Why would anyone agree to this?

At the talk, we first asked the panelists why they agreed to be a part of a manel, and then a manel + 1, in the first place, and why they did not object to a lack of female representation on the panel.

The response was mixed.

Asad Umer was quick to point out that all panelists had felt there was a need for more women. Initially, he did not know who else would be sitting with him, nor did he ask. That makes enough sense, you get a call to be on a panel, you feel you have the experience for it and you say yes As he said, that since the topic was pertinent to him, he was in attendance. 

“The reason you don’t see women on this panel, is because in your mind it is not important,” he said, referring to unconscious biases. “It is not possible that there were not at least three women in Pakistan who could have spoken on this”.

Dr Ishrat also reminded the audience that the panel was all-male to begin with, and it was only after the men called on to speak engage in a dialogue about it that a woman was added. 

Ayesha Aziz, the late addition that the KLF was magnanimous enough to include, however, took a completely different view. “You are flogging the wrong horse,” she said, stressing that in their own capacities, the men on the panel had tried within their own organizations to bring about change. 

“If you just want to see women sitting here, just grousing, then perhaps that’s being a little sexist as well,” she said emphatically, to applause.

The problem with the manel

Look, first a disclaimer. This is not the first time we have interacted with a manel. As reporters who frequently cover events and talks in the financial sector, we have seen the dearth of women at events. Not a lot of women are deemed experts in their fields, and subjects such as finance and technology skew male. 

We would also like to add the apparently necessary disclaimer that we are not negating the efforts the male panelists are making within their own organizations. We appreciate the work they are putting in to formulate and implement inclusive work policies, working towards female independence, as Aziz reminded us. 

But acknowledging the actions of the male panelists toward helping women does not bar them as people that cannot be questioned. And for all of their work towards fostering inclusive environments, the question still stands, why did these men agree to be a part of a manel + 1 in the first place? After all, as individuals that call for more inclusion of women, should they not have been the first to ask for greater female representation on the panel? 

Let us reiterate that asking questions does not make female reporters sexist, because reverse sexism does not exist. 

Let us also note that there are a handful of female CEOs, regulators or people that have risen to higher ranks within the corporate sector. Women like Maheen Rahman, Shamshad Akhtar, Sania Nishtar, Jehan Ara, Sima Kamil, Tahira Raza, and many more exist that could have dominated the discussion without appeasing the male members of society. But organizers of such literary festivals rarely look towards these women. 

And lest you think they might have ‘less relevant’ experience, here is a rundown of their experiences. Shamshad Akhtar was State Bank Governor during the financial crisis, Sima Kamil runs the third largest bank in the country, Maheen Rahman runs one of the most successful asset management companies in Pakistan, Sania Nishtar runs the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP), Jehan Ara runs Pakistan’s leading tech startup incubator which includes many fintech investments, and Tahira Raza used to run First Women’s Bank.

There is not a single man on that panel who has more relevant experience on the subject of financial inclusion than these women.

The mere existence of a manel + 1 to talk about women’s issues is beyond absurd and should always be criticized. Without right representation, and thoughts voiced by marginalized voices in society ie. women and gender minorities, how does Pakistan, or the world for that matter, hope to be more inclusive?

How could this have been improved?

The topic itself had enough substance to be a powerful and conclusive discussion on its own if things had been structured differently.

As a first step, a female moderator could have been appointed, instead of a man. A moderator is essentially entrusted with the task of helping the audience get their needs met through a panel format. They set the tone and pace of the discussion. While organizers could argue that there is a lack of female CEOs or women that are in positions to make a change, a female moderator would have been an effective way of addressing women’s concerns, and it is not as difficult to find an informed woman to moderate. 

KLF, however, went the extra mile with a male moderator that decided to comment on the challenges Ayesha Aziz was subjected to, by reminding the audience of the additional challenge women face at making “gol rotis”. 

While Aziz’s success story can be considered an anomaly seeing as to how few  women make it to the top ranks in the business world, specifically in the financial sector; we believe that there are still a number of women that should have been given the chance to speak.

For starters, there were three men that represented the government at this talk. Dr Ishrat works for the government, Asad Umer works in the government, and Reza Baqir works besides the government. Did we really need three male voices from the same pond? What the KLF was thinking with this move we can’t quite be sure, but it does show that they were looking with blinkers when trying to find voices that they wanted to feature for this talk. 

There is, admittedly, a lack of women in important financial positions in the government. This is a problem in its own right, but why was this the only place the KLF was looking towards to talk about inclusiveness? The only non-government presence was HBL, and banking is again a sector heavily dominated by men in Pakistan. 

Finding a woman from within the organization to represent HBL’s stance would have been a tough ask. Let us get this straight, HBL is trying to do its part in being more inclusive, but as things stand, the bank’s senior management consists of 25 men and one woman, (Neelofer Hameed, Company Secretary). Only 17% of HBL’s workforce are women, though management has said it wants to increase that ratio to 20% this year. Once again, goals like this are commendable. There still, however, remains the fact that more could have done to make this discussion inclusive, and actually about women.  

Setting up a panel discussion to talk about women’s empowerment and financial inclusion should be seen as a strong enough topic to draw in crowds. But bringing in crowd pullers like Asad Umer, or Dr Ishrat Hussain for the sake of filling up a hall should be avoided. These are some of the men that have actually made efforts, and say the right things and are well meaning, but they get enough of the spotlight. It is time that women begin to be seen as not just viable alternatives for them or late additions, but as the first choice. 

The organizers claimed that they had trouble finding female CEOs in the financial world. But this talk was not just restricted to formal banking nets, where barriers to entry for women are taller and stronger. It encompassed independence, entrepreneurship, and vision. There are countless women working toward similar goals but through different streams.

Oh, and see the paragraph above. We listed six women who would have been better qualified to be on that panel. We understand that not all of them were available for the event. For instance, Sima Kamil may have been out of the country at that point. But a 50% acceptance rate would have created a panel of three very qualified women to have that conversation. Even a 33% acceptance rate would have resulted in at least two other women joining the panel.

What is wrong with this system? 

Manel + 1s, or the inadequate representation of women, are only part of the problem. In fact, talking about manel + 1s is easy – it is practically clickbait. Get some retweets on Twitter, and wait for the next social media outrage to pop up next week. 

It’s easy to fall into this dichotomy, on both sides: the activists’ justified, bubbling anger on one hand; and the lazy and confused KLF organizers and irritated bankers on the other hand, with their obsession for optics management. 

The bigger problem, the real ‘why do we even bother with this’ actually comes from the panel itself: why do we want financial inclusion for women? Why do we want more women to have bank accounts? Why do only 17% of women in Pakistan have a bank account, compared to the regional average of 64%. What do answering these questions mean for us as a society, and as an economy?

Since the 1990s, the world has accepted the system of capitalism as a net good. Its very pervasiveness has led to jokes about ‘late stage capitalism’, or the absurdities and strangeness of a modern economy that we are all willing or unwilling participants in.

But that is not Pakistan. Let us be very clear – Pakistan is not that kind of capitalist country, per se. It is many things: feudal, bureaucratic, stagnated. Another great term we like to use is ‘rentier state’: essentially that Pakistan’s economic development is based around the wealth and interests of state elites and feudal elites, and their chosen clients and chosen private interest groups. 

Economic development in Pakistan is not based around actual domestic production, creation of an efficient manufacturing base, an organized and productive labour force, or structural change.

Corporate Pakistan, the State Bank, the IMF and the government – basically, the entire makeup of the panel – all have to contend with this state of affairs: how do we turn this around? How do we actually create efficient capitalism? How do we actually make things, or trade things, or create money? 

There are people that decry this entire affair as nonsense, as neoliberal nonsense, that ought to be eradicated from our country, for the betterment of our people. It is a fair critique: it is just not a view that Profit takes. This entire magazine is predicated on the fact that businesses and companies and the pursuit of money will always exist (and it is our job as journalists to hold them accountable, as much as we can).

AND THAT, for as long as this system of affairs exists, means that it will always be important to discuss when women fit. For as long as there is a Pakistani man out there with a bank account and setting up a shop, our question as journalists, as women, will always be: and where is his female counterpart? For as long as we have a system of absurdly over paid male CEOs, our question will always be: and where are the absurdly over paid female CEOs?

If we are going to partake in this neoliberal push, then you best believe that someone will always ask if you are doing enough to make sure women exist. We ought to be challenged constantly: on the scale of microfinance loans given to women, on whether women can purchase items for Rs50,000 without showing her male relatives’ NIC [national identity card], or if her corporate job has a maternity leave policy, on whether she can create financial independence in Pakistan for herself.

We write this article so that you, as a reader, can ask yourself: who speaks for this woman? Is it women, or some few good-natured men on a panel?


  1. The launch of Digital Financial Service launched last week on Facebook for e-Commerce platform collaboration with Telenor Pakistan, for 1000 women from Pakistan to apply from their facebook.
    Why this was not mentioned on Profit in this issue.


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