Female Representation In Parliament: Is It Real Power?
“No nation can rise to the height of glory unless your women are side by side with you; we are victims of evil customs. It is crime against humanity that our women are shut up within the four walls of the houses as prisoners. There is no sanction anywhere for the deplorable condition in which our women have to live. You should take your women along with you as comrades in every sphere of life.” (Muhammad Ali Jinnah, 1944)
After the independence of Pakistan in August 1947, women’s groups and feminist organizations started by prominent leaders like Fatima Jinnah, Mother of the Nation that worked to eliminate socio-economic injustices against women in the country. The constant presence of Fatima Jinnah, the Quaid’s sister, was not accidental but a message by this visionary leader that women should be equal partners in politics. Women in Pakistan have been active participants in parliamentary politics and are allowed to vote in elections since 1956 as well as represent through women’s reserved quota. As far as Pakistan is concerned, women represent 48% of the population as per the 2017 census but they are still in a minority in Pakistan’s political processes because of gender discrimination and patriarchal system. Notwithstanding constraints, Pakistan is a country that has seen a number of major milestones for women; in 1988 Benazir Bhutto became the first ever woman prime minister of a Muslim country; in 2008 Dr. Fehmida Mirza became the first woman to be elected as speaker of the National Assembly. We also had Hina Rabbani Khar as our first female foreign minister as well as celebrated lawyers like Asma Jahangir and foreign ambassadors like Sherry Rehman and Maleeha Lodhi as part of our history.
Comparing our recent 2018 general elections with our eastern neighbor, India, only 8 out of 183 (about 4%) female candidates secured seats in Pakistan’s National Assembly. India in its electoral history of 2019 witnessed the highest number of victorious female candidates, 78 secured seats or 11 %. These victorious female candidates in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections have political careers built through years of struggle and have climbed up the ranks in their respective political parties by gradually gaining roots in their constituencies. This provides food for thought for Pakistani political parties on how they ought to potentially look toward India if they are serious about ending patriarchal political culture in the next elections. Most female politicians in Pakistan directly enter politics via reserved seats without contesting elections and do not have a constituency. They have no chance to campaign or appeal to voters. This indirect mode of election reduces their effectiveness, credibility and reduces their chances of becoming politically stronger over time. In contrast, the dynastic culture in political parties supports female politicians with their strong family background. Even Benazir Bhutto attained global fame as the youngest and first Muslim woman prime minister when she was swept to power in 1988, on a groundswell of support generated by Zia’s execution of her father, former Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.
Women in Pakistan have rarely been given opportunities to be part of any process of change. Their positioning within networks, access to resources, and interaction with male colleagues are often critical to their political trajectories. Religious dogmas also become hurdles for women to take active part in politics. Women politicians contend with unwelcome and misogynist media coverage. Shirin Mazari, who used to sit as an opposition member in the National Assembly (2013–2018), endured sextist comments from the speaker of the house and mockery regarding her physical appearance. The absence of effective accountability mechanisms within political parties and the legislative assemblies to process harassment complaints contributes to a hostile work environment for women politicians. Women claim they are often ignored within their own political parties and during assembly proceedings because they lack geographical constituencies of their own, and did not go through the rigor or expense of campaigning amongst the public. The opportunity to canvas directly with voters for their support would give women candidates the experience they need to develop into mainstream legislators on general seats, and earn them important political credibility. At present most women members of political parties operate only within segregated women’s wings, whose role is to canvas support for male politicians and not to play a role in crafting party policy.
How do we resolve the issue and empower women in Parliament? The women members of the Assemblies must rise beyond party affiliation, influence decision-making and become effective in legislation. It is the need of the day to develop a political culture that supports women. Political parties must take initiative to involve more women in politics and enhance their role without taking pressure from religious clerics. It is time that the Prime Minister of Pakistan and his party empower women be catalysts of this change. No reform that excludes women is sustainable in the long run.
‘Pakistan is a difficult place to be a female. I have hope, we have hope, and we have to hope. I am hopeful that the challenges I have faced, my children will not. I am hopeful that the successes I have achieved will inspire my children. I think they are more confident because of my actions.’ – Haseen Mussarat, RHV: Raising Her Voice