Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) is set to make history when for the first time five women will be contesting its upcoming elections on general seats. This is a positive and welcome development, but what does this really means in real terms? Five is a negligible number for the 49-member assembly.
Of the nearly two million voters in AJK, nearly half the number of registered voters consists of women. With five seats reserved for women in the AJK Assembly, five more women contesting the polls on general seats still make for dismal representation of nearly half the population. Among the major national parties, the PPP has awarded tickets to two women, the PML-N has fielded one candidate and most disappointingly, the PTI has failed to field a single female candidate on general seats.
Our mainstream political parties often make tall claims regarding women representation and ‘women’s rights’ but the reality on the ground is starkly different with the reserved seats for women in our assemblies having increasingly become the beginning and end of their political participation. In the past, politicians, including PTI Chairman Imran Khan, have expressed their reservations on having quotas for women in the assemblies on the grounds that they should consist of directly elected representatives of the people.
Yet the same leaders have not shown alacrity over awarding tickets to women on general seats. Pakistan electing Benazir Bhutto as prime minister two decades ago is often cited as an example of the country’s progressive politics, but this argument is weak at best and does not reflect the reality of women’s place in politics and parliament. In addition, women on reserved seats at times just serve as an extension of the largely male political elite. The derogatory remarks Shirin Mazari was recently subjected to highlights the kind of respect women are accorded in parliament from their male colleagues. Gender equality in politics must be demanded and ensured on every front and at every level. It is high time the major political parties recognised the needs of our age and started working towards gender equality.