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Women’s representation in parliament

Women’s representation in parliament


When the long standing demand of women for gender quotas in legislatures was agreed to by the then-government in 2002, there were mixed reactions from activists. I remember we were excited at one hand to have won the battle albeit partially, and on the other hand we were deeply concerned about the modalities of women’s elections to these quota seats.

There’s little doubt about the fact that democracy would remain non-representative and faulty if women, over half of the world’s population, are excluded or negligibly represented in the decision-making fora. Because of various reasons including patriarchal values in most societies, women are not able to participate in public life fully, especially politics. As affirmative action, gender quotas were introduced.

There has been a long debate around gender-based quotas globally with strong arguments for and against them. Equality of opportunity and voters rights to choose who sits in the parliament are two most frequently quoted arguments against the quota system. The opponents view gender quotas as against the principle of equality because they give women preference over men, or give women access to more opportunities for being elected compared to men.

Also, women elected on quota seats may or may not be the choice of the voter. This, in their view disempowers the voters. A practical manifestation of this was seen in recent elections when a woman lost with a big margin but still sat in the parliament on reserved seats.

This criticism aside, the arguments for the reserved quota for women outweigh opposing arguments. This is the reason why more and more countries are now introducing gender quotas in parliament.
Looking into the equality of opportunities argument, most won’t deny that there exists a deep chasm in most societies between women and opportunities to participate in law making. To fill this gap, the quota system is a necessary measure for building the foundations of women’s meaningful participation. The second argument however, deals with the modality of the women’s election on quota seats. If a viable modality is followed, the constituent would be empowered to choose who wins these seats.

This was the main reason why most women were dissatisfied when quota was introduced in Pakistan in 2002. The modality incurred was apprehended to encourage the elite capture of the quota seats instead of creating opportunities for professional women and women from the peasant and working classes.

Quotas nevertheless, are meant to spark women’s participation in decision-making on an equal footing and should be considered the first step to trigger their numbers in parliament so they can influence policy making. After a period of time, they mature into the full fledged participation of women. After ten years, reserved seats for women in legislative bodies are now putting a glass ceiling for women instead of creating opportunities for them.

In 2008, Pakistan came up at number 44 in a list of 145 parliaments arranged in descending order for percentage of women members, with 22.8% women in its bicameral parliament. After recent elections, the position has fallen down to 65 with only 18.1% women in both houses of parliament. The difference in this percentage was because of the declining number of women elected on general seats in addition to the 17% quota, which stands constant.

This trend points to a two-pronged problem. Not only are the quota seats filled through non-democratic means with a monopoly of male-dominated leadership, but there is resistance within parties for awarding more tickets to women candidates for general elections.

There is no dearth of best practices in the world to fill quota seats through direct elections. One easy solution can be to fuse two or three constituencies for women’s seats and let them be elected on a joint electorate basis with votes for both men and women. Proportional representation, which is in practice in Pakistan, gives a number of women’s quota seats to political parties based on the number of seats they win in elections.

This way, women are made dependent on their male colleagues for getting ‘selected’ as opposed to elected to the legislature. It also snatches a lot of political space from women to influence law making because they always have to follow the political choices of their leadership to remain in the House and to secure their political future. One recent example was seen in the 13th National Assembly when women from one political party could not vote for the Domestic Violence Bill despite being strongly passionate about it.

At one instance, women from one political party refused to sit in the Women’s Caucus meeting if it discussed controversial blasphemy laws, because their leadership didn’t want them to. This brings to focus the long-standing issue of party discipline versus lawmakers’ independence to express opinion on critical issues, which remains common for male parliamentarians too.

The second issue of lesser women elected on general seats has much to do with the male-controlled structure of political parties and prevalent patriarchal values in society, which make it difficult for women to come forward and contest elections from whichever class they belong to. Limitations of women’s mobility, lack of general acceptance as community leaders, middle class value system, their preoccupation with the household and other existential issues, their economic dependency upon male income, lesser control of family resources, are to name but a few.

A lesser spoken about issue is Violence Against Women in Politics (VAWIP), which has recently been highlighted by a joint study conducted by UN Women and Center for Social Research in India, Nepal and Pakistan. The study underlines sidelining, refusal to involve women in budget discussions and manifesto drafting, the passing of derogatory remarks, expectation of sexual favors, the insinuation of sexual misdemeanor, threat of violence rather than actual physical violence and character assassination as a tool sometimes to get sexual favors but mostly to seriously damage the reputation and achievements of a woman in politics with the intention of reducing their public support.

Accusing a woman’s character for reducing her political weight and public support was seen in recent years with a number of women parliamentarians including Kashmala Tariq, Hina Rabbani Khar, Sharmeela Faruqi, Sherry Rehman and many others. In a worst case of violence, a cleric killed sitting Provincial Minister for Social Welfare Ms. Zile Huma in 2007 while she was addressing a public rally because she as a woman politician was unacceptable.

While all these factors adversely affect women’s active participation in politics especially the electoral process, there is not much enthusiasm among the political parties to address this. The Women’s Parliamentary Caucus in 2011 had recommended amendments to the Representation of People Act 1976 and make it mandatory for political parties to award at least ten percent tickets for general elections to women on winnable seats. Unfortunately, many political parties opposed it despite very aggressive lobbying by the Caucus. It is encouraging to see that the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Parliamentary Affairs has agreed to discuss the Amendment Bill by Ms. Nafisa Shah, afloat since the last parliamentary tenure.

It is hoped that the new parliament will seriously take measures to not only amend the laws for more women on general seats but also for making the modality of filling women’s reserved seats more democratic and representative to create space for women from all classes to influence law making. Special attention needs to be given to address violence against women in politics in which the media must play its powerful role.

The writer is an Islamabad based campaigner for human rights and works on parliamentary strengthening and democratic governance. Email:marvi@marvisirmed.com Tweets at:@marvisirmed

The Nation

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