By: Ishrat Saleem
Political parties awarded very few tickets to women on general seats, reflecting patriarchal trends where women are kept out of the public space
The recently held by-elections’ result shows that women continue to march ahead in politics despite heavy odds. Three more women made it to the National Assembly by contesting on general seats. PPP’s Shamsunnissa Memon and Shazia Marri won their seats from Thatta and Sanghar respectively, while PML-N’s Shazia Mubashar won from Lahore on a seat vacated by Shahbaz Sharif. Another good news concerns areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where women have been barred from exercising their right to vote in successive elections with no action from the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). This time, however, the Peshawar High Court (PHC) Chief Justice ordered the ECP to stop the results of two constituencies, NA-5 Nowshera and NA-25 Lakki Marwat, where women were not allowed to vote. The ECP will conduct re-polling in these constituencies.
Women are fighting a fierce battle for political representation. Although years of struggle by women’s advocacy groups led General Pervez Musharraf to reserve seats for women in the National and provincial Assemblies, there are areas in Pakistan where women are not even allowed to vote. Many women are kept out of the political process because they do not have identity cards or are not registered as voters. If they somehow cross these two hurdles, elders of the community and local officials of political parties illegally bar women from voting in parts of FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Such incidents make headlines, but the ECP never declared void results of constituencies where women had been barred from voting. It is hoped that the PHC notice would break this tradition.
Reserved seats for women in the National and provincial Assemblies have facilitated women’s participation in politics and encouraged more women to contest on general seats. Some 150 women filed papers on general seats of the National Assembly in the 2013 election, mostly as independent candidates. Political parties awarded very few tickets to women on general seats, reflecting patriarchal trends where women are kept out of the public space. Still, several brave women tried to break class and gender barriers to enter politics. For the first time in Pakistan’s history, Badam Zari contested on a general seat in Bajaur. Although she secured very few votes, the fact that she contested has great symbolic value. Veeru Kohli contested on a provincial Assembly seat in Hyderabad. Veeru is the daughter of a landless hari and was married into a family of bonded labourers. She valiantly fought her landlords and managed to free eight of her family members along with 40 others imprisoned by them.
Many other women with aspirations to improve their communities filed papers, but lost to their more powerful rivals. Wealth, influence, and backing by political parties are the traditional recipe for political success. Some candidates were able to bust this formula by dint of sheer hard work and popularity among the public. For instance, Jamshed Dasti, son of a labourer, defeated Ghulam Rabbani Khar, a local influential and father of former foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar in NA 177 and PML-N’s Mohammad Abad on NA 178. Farid Khan is another such example who won a provincial Assembly seat in Hangu as an independent candidate after years of social work in the area. Unfortunately, he was murdered by unknown assailants soon after the election. We have yet to see women working such miracles. They are usually confined to their homes by their role as caregivers and cannot develop such influence in society without patronage.
The win by three more women in the by-elections has brought the tally of women holding general seats in the National Assembly to nine. However, a lot more needs to be done to ensure that women’s voices are heard and their concerns addressed at the policy making level. Reserved seats in the Assemblies have introduced a gender perspective to policy making, but the mechanism for filling these seats needs tremendous improvement. Instead of electing women indirectly, parliament should consider introducing direct elections for filling reserved seats for women. In the current scheme of things, women candidates are nominated by party heads. The track record for work on women’s causes and the ability to contribute to legislation and policy-making is rarely considered a good reason to nominate a candidate for these seats. More often than not, influential party leaders are rewarded for their contribution to the party by nominating their female relatives. This needs to change.
This, however, does not mean that women have not contributed meaningfully to legislative business in the past two Assemblies. In fact, a study conducted by Aurat Foundation concluded that women excelled in several areas of legislative business compared to their male counterparts during 2002-2007. The outgoing PPP government appointed Dr Fehmida Mirza as the first female speaker of the National Assembly in Pakistan’s history, who led a caucus of women legislators across party lines. This caucus worked on important issues affecting women.
Pakistan’s society is rapidly changing with more women contesting the public space with men. No party can ignore women’s causes without incurring political costs. The PML-N has recently been criticised for not giving adequate representation to women in the proposed local bodies law in Punjab. It is hoped that the PML-N would understand the changing dynamics in Pakistan’s society and take credible measures to ensure that women get due representation in politics. NADRA and the ECP should also make sure that by the next election, all women of voting age have ID cards and are registered to vote.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Washington, DC. She tweets at @ishrats and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org