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Gender Matters More in This Election Than You Think

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The other day, my children were arguing over who would be the leader for a game. My son, 9, told my daughter, 6, that he should be the leader because he was a boy. It goes without saying, my daughter was upset.

"So what?" she cried. "Girls can be leaders!"

"Oh yeah?" replied my son, know-it-all that he is. "If that's true, how come there's never been a girl president?"

My daughter is too young to know much about American politics or history. She came running to me asking if her brother was telling the truth. I didn't know how to respond. How can we say men and women are equal if we've never had a female president, if women make up a dismal 5 percent of top CEO positions and are still paid less than their male counterparts in pretty much every industry? How do I answer my daughter? What examples do I offer to her in response not just to her brother but society in general?

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This isn't just an ideological or feminist debate. It's a very relevant issue for parents of girls at a time when there is increasing competition between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.

Just last week, feminist icon Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright came under fire for suggesting that women should vote for Hillary because of her gender. What have we come to, choosing a president because she's a woman? Gender isn't supposed to matter, right?

Here's something radical: the gender argument is valid, at least for me.

Voting for Hillary Clinton—just because she's a woman—isn't complete hogwash, although there are other things to consider. So I told my daughter a little story of when I was a girl in Pakistan.

When someone asked, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" I could easily and confidently say "president" or "prime minister."

Everyone knows Pakistan for its gender inequalities, it's oppression of women. What's not known by the average American is that in 1988 Pakistan elected the first female head of state of the entire Muslim world: Benazir Bhutto. Her election sent a shockwave because of the stereotypical image of Muslim women.

Photograph by Getty Images

How had this third world country managed to do what the U.S. hadn't?

Benazir wasn't a national darling by any means. She was hated by many for her political party's policies, and her election was hardly a landslide. You could say she was both loved by millions and hated by millions—just like Hillary Clinton.

But Benazir got elected, and her election and subsequent administration had a transformative sociological effect on women in Pakistan. I was a young girl at that time, always aware of the second-class position of my gender in society. All of a sudden, with Benazir's election, I felt like I could do anything. Unlike my daughter, I could look at the boys around me and think, "I could be your leader."

If Benazir could do it, so could I.

Pakistan was able to hold its head high as a nation after Benazir's election. Yes, my birth country still had gender inequalities and poor gender rights records, but at least we didn't think women were incapable of leading the nation. A Muslim nation . After her, several other Muslim countries began electing women as heads of state: Bangladesh, Indonesia, Senegal, Mauritius, Iran, Kososvo and others all voted, and continue to vote for, female leadership.

Those who are angry at bringing Hillary's gender into the discussion are missing the point: gender is a fact of life, and it affects all of us.

Slowly, Muslim women across the planet were becoming empowered like nothing before. Girls were able to hold their head high and make goals for the future. When someone asked, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" I could easily and confidently say "president" or "prime minister." Nobody would say, "Awww," in that cute little voice that actually means, "Dream on, little girl."

Also, it was doubly exciting that Benazir was a young mother, and she was often seen in public with her children. All of a sudden, Pakistani women realized that you can have it all: careers and a motherhood, femininity and leadership. The effect on me and others in my generation was very real, very positive.

That's what I want for my daughter. She's only 6, but she needs to see that women can be leaders of corporations and governments. I want her to dream of being the president of a small business, a multinational corporation, a university, even a nation. I don't want her brother to tell her that she cannot do something because she's a girl. I don't want him to think that, either.

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So for me, this election is definitely about gender. Those who are angry at bringing Hillary's gender into the discussion are missing the point: gender is a fact of life, and it affects all of us. American girls and young women need female role models in every level of leadership, and this may be our chance to make it happen. So parents of little girls: do your research, look at all the candidate's promises, plans and track records. But please also look at their gender.

It's not unimportant, not if you want your daughters to dream big.

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