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In defence of reserved seats for women

By: Dr Farzana Bari

The writer is director of the Department of Gender Studies at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad

The debate on the question of a gender quota in parliament seems to be highly misunderstood in Pakistan. The recent statement by Imran Khan at a seminar on “Justice for Women of Pakistan”in Lahore where he opposed reserved seats for women has created a stir, especially among the women’s rights community.

The PTI chief has managed to create quite a lot of confusion by making a highly conflated statement. His team is now trying to do damage control — as it always does — by explaining what he really meant. While his concern on whether those female MNAs on reserved seats were true representatives of the electorate is legitimate, his opposition to gender quota in the same breath showed his lack of understanding of the issue. Instead of suggesting corrective measures to the indirect way in which reserved seats work, he threw out the baby with the bath water by opposing the gender quota altogether. It seems that the PTI chief is not aware of the history of discrimination against women in Pakistan, or perhaps he thinks that this is an issue that is of interest only to women — and hence, why bother.

What we need to understand is that women’s exclusion from the formal arena of politics is a centuries-old global phenomenon. Despite several human rights bills that obligate the international community to ensure gender equality in all spheres of life, the representation of women in parliaments worldwide is only 19.6 per cent. This means that patriarchal sociocultural, economic and political structures hinder women’s equal participation in mainstream politics not just in Pakistan but in the developed world as well. It is because of this and the long history of keeping women out of politics that countries like Pakistan have a quota for women in parliament — as part of a strategy to bridge the yawning gender gap in public representation. The fact is that around half of the countries of the world use some type of quota (constitutional, electoral or voluntary) for their parliaments.

We know that women cannot be lumped together in a unitary category. Class, ethnicity, religion and other social divisions divide them. They do not necessarily have common interests. Women’s concerns can be represented by anyone who has a gender perspective irrespective of his/her own gender (although research shows that women are more likely to legislate on social issues). There is a powerful utility argument in favour of gender quota; however, I will take a simpler route — that of justice in defence of a gender quota.

Women constitute nearly half the population. They contribute more than men to the development of the country through their triple roles in the productive, reproductive and community management roles in society.

Imran Khan must understand that women’s formal involvement in politics does not automatically lead to their substantive representation. Rather, their ability to effectively perform and represent women’s interests depends on the larger context of democracy; how they enter the political arena and to whom they are accountable. The PTI is absolutely correct in suggesting that political parties should hold elections within their ranks and promote women into higher leadership positions. However, he should not forget that political parties in this patriarchal socio-economic set-up and as gatekeepers have deprived women in general, and female party workers in particular, for the last 65 years from attaining decision-making positions.

There is hardly any women’s representation in the central committees or the decision-making structures of Pakistan’s mainstream political parties — and the PTI is not very different in this regard. It has been a long-standing demand of women’s rights organisations that the Political Parties Act be amended to require all political parties to set aside a 33 per cent quota for women in party offices, leadership positions as well as in election tickets. What we need to do is increase the gender quota for women in the National and provincial assemblies from its current 17 per cent to 33 per cent. Furthermore, elections to these seats should be held directly. In addition, political parties should be required to give at least 20 per cent of all party posts and tickets to women.

The Express Tribune