IN the 2013 general election, the three main parties (PML-N, PTI, PPP) fielded a combined total of 112 candidates for Lahore’s 38 national and provincial assembly seats. Only five out of these 112 individuals were women and none were initially elected. After the onset of several by-elections, finally one of the 38 legislators from the provincial capital turned out to be a woman — Shazia Mubashir.
In the 2015 local government polls, Lahore saw electoral contestation for 274 city council seats. Out of the 550-odd candidates put up for the chairperson slot by our three main parties, three were women. Only one of them, PML-N’s Rabia Faruki, was elected. In phase II, the city elected a mayor and nine deputy mayors, all of whom are men. Ms Faruki’s name was initially put forward as a possible candidate for either slot, but was withdrawn at the last minute to accommodate other candidates.
There are reserved seats for women in every elected tier, from the union council all the way to the Senate. Women nominated for these seats have outperformed their male elected peers on any number of legislative benchmarks. However, as the example of Lahore shows, 15 years on from the allocation of these seats, one of their aims — growth in the number of women candidates in general electoral contests — is still largely unfulfilled.
Lahore provides a particularly stark example of electoral patriarchy because large urban centres have generally shown some progress in other measures of gender equality. Higher-education enrolment, for example, now exhibits male-female parity. In some degree-awarding disciplines, there are more women enrolled than men.
Similarly, women’s participation in the non-farm labour force is higher in metropolitan centres, compared to smaller towns and cities. It is reasonable to expect that conservative notions of female immobility and gender-segregated public spaces will erode in more economically dynamic and cosmopolitan spaces. It is thus fairly puzzling why we don’t see more women in the vocation of politics in a city like Lahore.
Existing analysis on the issue provides a number of generic reasons for the lack of women participating as candidates. One is that political parties are dominated by male politicians who exercise gender bias in ticket allocations. The other is that women themselves are reluctant to compete in what are often messy and violent political battles. What needs further explication in Pakistan’s case is how gender imbalances play out in the specific domain of electoral politics.
To gain more precise answers, we need to trace where parties usually find candidates from. In countries with strong and entrenched political parties, candidates for local and national office come from within the party structure or from organisations associated with parties.
In the case of the UK, the Labour party trains potential candidates through its student wings, think tanks, and community-based organisations. At times, it draws its electoral candidates from affiliated unions and NGOs. Similarly, the Republican party in the US historically used GOP clubs on campuses and business associations, and nowadays uses conservative community groups (such as anti-abortion, anti-gay rights groups) to find future leaders.
In Pakistan on the other hand, candidate recruitment takes place outside of any well-defined feeder systems anchored with campuses and community organisations. Here two major criteria appear to crop up when party leaders pick candidates: first is perceptions about their electability, ie a potential candidate’s social prominence. The second is their ability to finance their own election campaign, ie their financial prominence.
Given these restrictions, it is little surprise that most urban candidates over these past two decades have come from within the business and trading community. Candidates from this pool are individuals who fulfil both criteria: they occupy positions of financial prominence due to their lucrative occupations, and exercise a great deal of social prominence due to their dealings in public marketplaces. These dealings include leading local market associations, investing in charitable enterprises, and helping build mosques and madressahs. Through such acts, local elites garner public acclaim and position themselves as prime candidates for political party recruitment at the time of elections.
The absence of women in urban politics, therefore, has a lot to do with the absence of women in spaces where political entrepreneurs emerge. The two main sites of public interaction in urban Pakistan are the marketplace and the mosque. Both of these are almost exclusively male-dominated spaces. In all my years living in this country, I have not yet encountered a woman-run business in a bazaar or a shopping mall. Women are seen as part of commerce largely as consumers, not as proprietors or entrepreneurs.
Similarly, mosques and madressahs give aspirational men an open site for public displays of charity and philanthropy. Plaques are put up with their names after donations and photo opportunities are arranged during every religious holiday. Women, on the other hand, who may exhibit similar aspirations for politics, have no such platform since there are no women-only mosques, and only a handful have women-only praying areas.
The patriarchal nature of electoral politics in Pakistan is worrying. Women constitute one half of the country’s total population and face a number of unique governance and social issues. These issues require effective articulation in the political sphere, a task that male legislators are largely ill equipped to carry out. A closer look at the trajectory of politicians shows that expecting effective women’s representation to emerge organically is misplaced. The training field for future politicians is monopolised by men and will continue to remain this way for the foreseeable future. The only thing that can make a substantive difference is affirmative action on part of political parties themselves. Without such an intervention, the male-dominated status quo will persist indefinitely.