the four walls
believe women will outshine them in politics”
In a country where a woman became the first Muslim head of government more than two decades back, we still have to debate the value of women in politics. People are still not convinced about the need for any sort of affirmative action to have more women in the local governments and the parliament. They think women in the political sphere means they would cater to women issues alone. And they couldn’t care less about those issues.
Isn’t it amazing that people can’t associate women with mainstream politics in a country that had a woman as a prime minister long before many of the developed countries?
Women did indeed get a chance to enter local as well as provincial and national politics in good numbers some ten years back. They were not taken seriously or heard largely because of the familiar accusation - they represented political families. They did not have individual identities; they were daughters or daughters-in-law or wives.
The criticism was partly justified. And hence was well-taken. Once inside the political sphere, these women defied all stereotypes. The dynamics of the world outside were different from home; empowering to say the least. So these vibrant women used this new-found power to their advantage. There was a lot of resistance at the local level but they persisted. Unlike men, they used these local governments for the bottom up approach. In a span of ten years, many of them followed the ideal route and ended up in provincial and central tiers.
Contrary to all expectations, they focussed equally on issues that involved women and those that involved the people, the country and, as the analysis of the legislation shows, economy and business and foreign policy and what not. The women on reserved seats drew attention towards themselves by the number and nature of private members bills and the quality of questions asked. No it was not a token presence.
That the speaker’s office is held by a woman is an added benefit. Many of the institutions in recent years have been forced to take notice of the performance of women parliamentarians. A lot of it is heartening. There is, of course, much that is still to be done. The local tier where empowerment began is missing at the moment. The political parties still have to allocate general election seats for women. And despite the formation of the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus by women parliamentarians, they still have “to rise above party lines and work together on policy making for women”.
It is mixed bag of achievements and aspirations that we recount and celebrate on our pages this March 8.
A glance at some of the bills presented by women legislators is enough to confirm how serious they are about the business of politics
By Abdul Sattar
Eleven hundred and ninety five women were murdered in 2010, 321 raped, 194 gang-raped, 126 burnt, 383 kidnapped, 316 tortured and 491 committed suicides. Welcome to International Women’s Day in Pakistan.
This is a country where semi-literate clerics roam about hurling abuses at women, declaring female parliamentarians apostate and actually killing a woman MP in Gujranwala, forcing a woman parliamentarian to take refuge in her own home where the specter of a possible assassination haunts her all the time. This is where a female minister is threatened to be killed for hugging an old man. And the list goes on.
In a political environment as discriminatory as this, how have the women legislators generally fared. How easy or difficult is it for women to engage in law-making exercise? Have they followed the party discipline or asserted their priorities in bringing up private members bills? What is a qualitative assessment of their performance in the assemblies?
These are questions that must be asked and answered because it is nearly 10 years now that women were made a part of the political process as an affirmative action that began with their inclusion at the local level politics.
The outspoken PPP leader and member of National Assembly Fouzia Wahab heaps praises on female parliamentarians claiming their performance is excellent. “Look at the resolutions that they have presented, the private members bills that they proposed, the points of order they have raised; all this shows they have played an active part in the assembly.” Former Senator Anisa Zeb Tahirkheli of PPP (Sherpao Group) agrees with what Wahab says. Both are optimistic about the future of female parliamentarians.
The details of National Assembly proceedings corroborate Wahab’s claims. According to the lower house record of the third parliamentary year commencing from March 2010, the female members of the assembly presented nine private members bills. In addition, they also lent support to the bills of their male counterparts. They were also active in raising points of order and asking pertinent questions that involved thorough homework during the question-answer session. Most of the bills proposed by female parliamentarians reflect their seriousness about the problems being faced by the people. For instance, Yasmeen Rehman’s proposed bill titled “The Civil Service (Amendment) Act, 2010” seeks to address the lacunae and problems in the civil service, which if removed would help people.
According to media reports, loans worth Rs270 billion have been written off by banks since 1973. A number of those who applied for loans write off turned out to be millionaires. To deal with this menace, a bill by Nisar Tanveer, Begum Nuzhat, Tahira Aurengzeb and their male colleague Rana Mehmood ul Hasan was proposed, seeking to devise a very strict mechanism for getting the loans written off.
Western Europe witnessed a rise of middle class in the aftermath of bourgeoisie revolution in France, England and other states but Pakistani politics is still dominated by landed gentry and business tycoons. There is very little say of the middle class in the present political order. Palwasha Khan introduced a very interesting bill titled “Political Parties Order (amendment) Act, 2010,” seeking to oblige political parties to nominate at least 25 per cent candidates in polls from middle class background.
In our society where males are quick to become polygamous leaving their first wife at the mercy of society, it is very important that the rights of first wife are not undermined. In many cases our male chauvinistic society lets the husbands take away minors from their first wife. Justice retired Fakhar un Nisa Khokar proposed a number of measures to ameliorate the situation of first wife in case her husband marries another woman. Her bill titled “Muslim Family Laws (amendment) Act, 2010,” suggest if a man who on the basis of Malice and Caprice, subjects his wife to mental agony and torture, obtains consent in order to marry second time shall under the circumstances:
(a) give her maintenance for life;
(b) shall pay the entire dower amount recoverable as arrears of land revenue;
(c) shall not deprive the wife from the custody of minor children;
(d) shall give the maintenance to the children of the divorced wife;
(e) if he has the financial capacity shall not deprive his wife from the house she was living before divorce;
(f) shall pay maintenance for two years to a wife who is breast feeding the infant from her wedlock even after period of iddat; and
(g) the family court shall act as a court of land revenue for the purpose of recovery of the aforesaid amount as arrears of land revenue.”
Marvi Memon of PML-Q sought to empower election commission through her private bill titled the “Constitution (Amendment) Act, 2010,” while Shireen Arshad Khan surprised many Pakistanis by revealing that a country hosting around three million refuges does not have any law for their protection. Her bill the “Foreigners (Amendment) Act,” seeks to amend the Foreign Act, 1946, to ensure the protection of foreigners in general and refugees in particular. Nisar Tanveer and Tahira Aurengzeb’s joint bill titled “Pakistan Private Hospitals, Clinics and other Private Healthcare Units Regulatory Authority Act, 2010,” seeks to check the unregulated mushrooming of private hospitals, health clinics and medical centres.
In a house of 342, the performance 76 female members, 60 reserved and 16 elected, has been a bit less effective this parliamentary year as compared to the previous parliamentary years when they tabled 33 private member bills, 19 of which were introduced by a single woman parliamentarian. Ten similar bills were jointly sponsored by members of both sexes.
In the last three years, female parliamentarians have proved that they are more serious about the proceedings of the house than their male counterparts. They have spoken almost on every important national issue but there also have been instances when they went silent on the issue which greatly affected them. For instance the female parliamentarians did not express any major reservations over the deal between the KP government and the Taliban militia in the Swat Valley some years back though it undermined the rights of women.
In the same way, MNA Sherry Rehman had to face a huge embarrassment when she could not get the support of her private bill seeking to amend the Blasphemy Law. No voice of dissent was heard from the female parliamentarians belonging to the PPP when Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani announced that Sherry would withdraw the bill.
The silence of female parliamentarians in general and PPP women legislators in particular was also surprising when two leaders of the party — one from Sindh and another from Balochistan — defended the tradition of honour killing on one pretext or the other. Similarly when the wife of a PML-N leader was harassed by her own husband, the female leaders of this party in general and women parliamentarian of Nawaz League in particular adopted complete silence. Many feel women parliamentarians should evolve a consensus that they would not support any action of their party, harming the interest of their gender.
—Rubina Irfan, PML-Q MPA from Kalat, Balochistan
By Muhammad Ejaz Khan
There is a conspicuous difference in the state of women in Balochistan with that of the rest of the country. Along with acute poverty, illiteracy and underdevelopment, the oppressed gender has been playing a significant social role for the last few decades.
“I have to face numerous problems, not only in carrying out developmental activities in my constituency Kalat, but also on the assembly floor where most of my ideas regarding women and development are disregarded,” Rubina Irfan tells TNS. She belongs to the Kalat district of Balochistan and was elected as MPA on the ticket of PML-Q in the 2008 elections.
Generally, it is believed that the tribal system in the province is a hurdle in female education in Balochistan as the tribal traditions do not allow women to leave the four walls of the home. But, Irfan disagrees, saying Balochistan is backward and has a low literacy rate because of lack of stress on female education — “I have not only provided computers in all schools and colleges of the Kalat district but also ensured provision of power supply to Kidi, Katelle and Mahtawa areas of Kalat which were otherwise deprived of the basic amenities since 1947.”
Baloch women also suffer at the hands of the middlemen who buy handicrafts and embroidered pieces at throwaway prices and sell these at high prices in the cities. But, the benefits of this trade hardly reach the women workers. Irfan says that she has provided hundreds of knitting machines to needy women in addition to setting up vocational centres in Kalat.
Irfan aspires to see women of her constituency come forward and play their role for the development of the area. It is high time the government paid heed to the problems faced by women in education and healthcare.
— Humaira Alwani, PPP MPA from Sindh
By Rabia Ali
In times when extremists and male chauvinists both frown upon women parliamentarians and decision-makers, a defiant and undeterred woman continues to reach out to the masses, and continues to make her place in the male-dominated society.
This vibrant woman, Humera Hameed Alwani, who is a member of the Sindh Assembly, comes from a remote village Var of District Thatta, where the literacy rate is almost none, and where women are not allowed to step beyond the threshold of their houses.
Though she was married off when she was hardly 20, Alwani not only managed to complete her MBA in Investment and Finance from the Sindh University after marriage, but also joined the Pakistan People’s Party in 2000 with support from her spouse.
“Initially, I faced a lot of resistance from my parents as in my community (she belongs to the Ismaili community) people are not inclined towards politics. Also, in the Sindhi culture, women’s participation in politics is not encouraged.”
But it was Alwani’s husband, Hameed, previously an assistant at the Bilawal House, who encouraged her to come into this field.
Serving as an MP for the second time on a reserved seat, Alwani is at the fore when it comes to raising voice for women’s rights. “I am better known among the victims than the masses,” she smiles.
“I was with Shaista Almani during her court proceedings. I was there to console the JPMC nurse when she was gang-raped. I try to be with all women that are victims of domestic violence and others crimes.”
For the last five years, Alwani has been working on a campaign with Oxfam against honour killings in Sindh and Balochistan.
“Sometimes I am subjected to death threats. In 2005, when I provided shelter to an honour killing victim Rozina of Khairpur, the influentials of that area declared me a kari (victim of honour crimes) and threatened to kill me.”
The threats haunt her even today. During the election campaigns, she was directed to ‘step back’ and ‘stay home with her family.’ “The society has not accepted women as decision-makers. Male parliamentarians do not take us seriously, and use offensive language to discourage us from taking part in politics.”
Despite her busy schedule as a politician, Alwani ensures her family is not neglected. She drops and picks her two sons everyday from school, performs household chores and cooks food for the family.
In the assembly so far she has submitted bills on gender harassment at workplace and elimination of domestic violence against women and children. She was recently in the US as part of the American Council of Young Political Leaders (ACYPL), where Pakistani young parliamentarians were taught what role they can play in the country’s political scenario.
Alwani, who aims to empower the women of the country, hopes to one day see a woman occupy the seats of the Sindh governor, chief minister and IG.
At home in Thatta, she is planning to start a girl’s college and a maternity home. “I want to give every woman a sense of security, and want them to be educated and empowered.”
The mainstream political parties are holding on to vague rhetoric on women development
By Waqar Gillani
Every political party in Pakistan makes women development a part of its electoral manifesto but all promises are lost and forgotten once the party forms the government at the provincial or the federal level.
A study by Islamabad-based think tank PILDAT (Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency), states that except for Pakistan Peoples’ Party, all other mainstream political parties — PML-N, PML-Q, MQM and ANP — resort to mere clichés on women-related issues. The institute rates the PPP’s stand on women’s development as “detailed”, and the rest of the four parties as “general”. It stresses the parties speak of violence against women, including honour killings, marriage to Quran, vani, karo kari and trafficking of women but refrain from addressing critical problems of maternal mortality and family laws.
PPP with its detailed 2008 elections manifesto advocates 20 per cent affirmative action job quota for women in public service to be initiated. It called for effective legislation to enable legal ownership of assets and resources for women to be enacted to facilitate their financial independence; institutional initiatives to be taken to prevent crimes against women in the name of tribalism, such as honour killings and forced marriages; family courts to be presided over by female judges to hear family law cases; legal right to maintenance and child custody to be implemented; women to be appointed to the superior judiciary; and ministry of women development to be a part of important policy-making bodies.
PML-N refers to Islam as the framework for women’s rights and for ensuring women’s dignity and protection. It promises women’s participation in national development, their social, political and economic empowerment; preference to female teachers in primary education; initiate female education and healthcare programmes to overcome gender gaps; effective representation of women in all key decision-making bodies; special legislation on violence against women and child abuse and micro-credit for female borrowers to be expanded substantially.
The PML-Q manifesto reads that fundamental human rights and dignity of women will be guaranteed and justice will be provided, including legal prosecution against acts of violence and honour killings. The PML-Q also aimed to end unfair practices like vani, karo kari, honour killings, marriage with Quran, etc, and ensure that women are not deprived of their due property rights by their more powerful male relatives.
Likewise, MQM manifesto claims all discriminatory laws against women and religious minorities will be repealed; social ailments like gender discrimination, sexual harassment, domestic violence, child abuse, rape in vengeance and forcing the opponent’s womenfolk to march on public streets naked, honour killings, child marriage, karo kari, vani, marriage to the Holy Quran and human bondage to be dealt with by public awareness campaigns in collaboration with community participation and stringent legislative measures. It further pledges to eliminate gender discrimination both in urban and rural areas, encourage female education and their full participation in society as equal citizen through persistent teaching, public awareness, appropriate administrative and legislative measures.
ANP manifesto of 2008 reads that all discriminatory policies that infringe on the equal rights of women and their participation in decision-making to be abolished. It aimed to support this by promulgating legislation on domestic violence, honour killings and trafficking of women, sexual harassment and assault. ANP also said that in addition to the international treaties signed by Pakistan for prevention of violence against women, the party will endorse the Optional Protocol of the International Convent on Civil and Political Rights and other such agreements. The ANP election agenda on women also promised election of women from general seats in addition to the reserved seats as there’s not an alternative to direct elections. It pledged to review National Identity Cards policies to ensure people are registered under father’s name and not spouse’s to ease lengthy processes in case of any changes in marital status.
Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, Executive Director PILDAT, while talking to TNS says except for PPP all other parties mention women development as a formality. “It would be interesting to see how many women have been awarded general and direct elections seats and how many women are on substantive party positions. Generally, women only have a token presence in politics.”
He adds, PPP so far seems to be on track by appointing a woman speaker and allotting information ministry offices to women in different times. “They’ve also given the party information secretary slot to a woman. Parties can deliver good results if we continue to provide seats to women in the assembly.”
Shagufta Malik, KP MPA
By Javed Aziz Khan
It was sheer hard work that not only got Shagufta Malik a women reserved seat in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assembly but also bagged the top slot in women’s wing of the Awami National Party (ANP).
The young and energetic Malik, who hails from the Nowshera district, has a lot on her plate: she is the provincial president of the women’s wing of ANP since 2008; chairperson of the Public Safety and Police Compliants Commission of the Peshawar district and chairperson of the Sports, Culture, Tourism, Archeology and Youth Affairs Committee of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assembly.
Malik joined politics seven years ago, in 2004, after obtaining masters in political science from the University of Peshawar. She was first elected a member of the district council Peshawar in the previous local bodies’ polls where she remained member of the Justice Committee as well as several other important bodies.
But it was in 2008 when the Lady Luck smiled over the young politician — “I ran a door-to-door election campaign for ANP candidates in my constituency during the 2008 elections. When we swept the polls in the province, my name was placed third on the list of women to be nominated as MPAs on reserved seats.”
Out of a total of 124 Khyber Pakhunkhwa MPAs, with 22 female nominees on reserved — ANP has 9, PPP 6, PML-N 2, JUI 3, while PPP Sherpao and PML Q have 1 each.
Last year, Shagufta Malik was instrumental in organising the Aman Convention in Nishtar Hall, Peshawar, to mark the World Women’s Day. “This was when KP was struck by terrorism. We displayed white flags and banners all around the place and brought out a rally to urge for peace on our soil,” says the young MP.
She also played a key role in organising the 31st National Games in Peshawar at a time when holding of the event seemed next to impossible. She feels, “Our women can shine in any field if their talent is polished — look at Naseem Hameed…” Shagufta, along with other female MPs, is demanding budgetary allocation of at least 2 per cent for sports in every district.
She is herself a table tennis player and swimmer.
Malik backed the bill against women trafficking and prevention of swara (giving away of young girls in marriage to hostile families as compensation for a relative’s crime) as well as domestic violence. “I advocated for police involvement in curbing women trafficking and trade, which is generally instigated by the influential people in the province. In the remote areas, victims of violence do not have recourse to legal proceedings, not even access to police stations to register an FIR. In such circumstances, who will help them but the police,” states Malik.
As the ANP provincial women’s wing president, Malik is looking for strengthening the party structure at the grassroots level. “We are re-organising the party’s women wing at the union council to develop better linkages with women at the local level,” she says.
She has recently returned from a month-long visit to the US where she attended the sessions of different legislative assemblies.
Ayesha Javed is one of the 66 female members of the 371 member of the Punjab Assembly. She has been actively participating in the house for almost three years.
Nominated as MPA on reserved seats for women by Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam) and later changing her loyalties from Chaudhries to Sharifs, she has become a part of the newborn Unification Block. She has been in the limelight for the past several months.
Javed believes that the policymakers should simplify the laws —”There is after all no shortage of laws for women. Those who hope for change have to become the agents of change first.”
A graduate of Kinnaird College for Women, Ayesha Javed says that women have a good environment and opportunity to create positive impact in the society with their effective role in politics. “There are difficulties at some points but overall the women’s role is positive.”
Though she got married right after she finished her studies, it was later when her husband Javed Iqbal, who was military secretary to the prime minister in 1999, was imprisoned that she practically took to politics.
One law that Javed ideally wants to see passed in the present assembly is of giving nationality to foreigners who marry Pakistani girls. “Here, a girl from abroad is given a Pakistani nationality when she marries a Pakistani man but not to a man who marries a Pakistani girl.” She terms it as discrimination.
Javed passed a resolution in the Punjab Assembly for the reconstruction opportunity zones in the flood-affected areas last year.
Coming from a political family, one would assume that the road to politics would have been trouble-free but Javed differs, “After the military coup in 1999 I was kept under house arrest for three months with my three children. The struggle has been anything but trouble-free. I had to start my career from grassroot level. It was later that I was elected president of the party’s women’s wing. And it was much later that the party gave me the party ticket after the Feb 18 general elections.
She opines women politicians have this privilege of reserved seats. “I honestly feel women should contest and take part in constituency politics because today women elected on reserved seats are not taken seriously. Our male counterparts have been naming us as ‘sweet dishes’. But it is very hard for a common girl to get up and start her politics.”
— Waqar Gillani
In retrospect, the reserved seats in local governments helped many women to cross the social barriers towards empowerment
Baitul Haram, 38 years old mother of seven was the first woman from this traditional Pukhtun family of district Mardan who dared to announce in 2001 that she wanted to contest elections as a councillor on a reserved seat for women in the local government system. “The demand came as a big shock to my husband because before that I had never even stepped out of my house without accompanying a male member of the family. Some of my family members even disowned me after learning about my desire”.
But she successfully faced all the opposition, went for the elections and won them too. “It was an amazing experience working as a councillor. Overwhelming majority of women in my area did not have their identity cards I helped them get the ID cards. At the end of my first tenure I became the face of my family and the same people who condemned me for contesting election in 2001 were my frontline supporters in the 2005 elections”.
Haram, who was married at the age of 14, feels like a different person today. “I can talk to people with confidence and more importantly my family cannot ignore my suggestions on family matters,” she says.
Baitul Haram was one of 36,105 women elected in the 2001 elections which guaranteed a 33 per cent quota for women in all three tiers of local governments.
Experts believe that this ‘forced inclusion’ of women due to gender quota in local politics positively impacted on their social status and brought about a subtle shift in public perception regarding womens’ role in politics and local governance. “Politics is the main source of empowering people. Ironically in our country it is viewed strictly as a male arena,” says Dr. Riffat Munawar who teaches at Institute of Social and Cultural Studies, Department of Sociology, University of the Punjab. She has also authored a book titled ‘Negotiating Political Spaces: Analyzing Decentralization and Women’s Political Empowerment in Pakistan’.
“The reservation of seats in the local governments brought a substantive number of women into local politics, though in most cases it was the decision of the family, community or locality to bring them forward for contesting elections. But, people started accepting women’s public space in politics due to their active engagement with local communities.”
Dr Munawar says that there were many obstacles for women councillors at the beginning. There was no physical infrastructure at the union council, tehsil or district level to accommodate them. Often nazims used to tell women councillors that there was no need for them to attend budget sessions, that the documents would be sent to them at home for signature. While allocating development budget, women-specific development proposals were often not approved as male councillors were in majority. “But they did not accept the situation passively. They struggled against these discriminatory attitudes of their male counterparts. They staged walk-outs, held pubic protests, and press conferences to condemn discriminatory behaviour in allocating development funds. They were also vocal in raising issues of public interest and asked questions regarding financial irregularities during the sessions. At the end of their first tenure they had made the union, tehsil and district council to accept their status. It was a success story and inspired many others to come out and contest elections.”
The gender analysis of 2005 local government election reveals that women showed a far greater interest in elections. According to the data collected by the Election Commission of Pakistan, there was a higher rate of contestation per seat as compared to the election held in 2001. Similarly, there was a sharp reduction in unopposed election on women seats from 21 per cent in 2001 local government election to 11 in 2005. Only 2 per cent seats reserved for women remained vacant in 2005 election as compared to 10 per cent in 2001. The rate of contestation on women seats also increased to 2.27 in 2005 from 1.43 in 2001.
Many female councillors graduated from 2001 to 2005. They improved their political status by contesting election for a higher tier of local government. “Many women councillors who served at the union council level moved up to the tehsil and those who served at tehsil level moved up to the district level,” Sarwar Bari, National Coordinator of Pattan Development Organisation. Pattan has done extensive work on women councillors and in fact helped them to establish a network of women councillor.
“Seventy three per cent were housewives, about seventy five per cent of them were less than fifty years of age. Eighty seven per cent of them contested elections for the first time in their life and 90 per cent contested elections due to motivations from their families or communities and were very regular to attend the sessions,” Bari tells TNS.
According to a study conducted by Pattan, on an average about seventy people approached women councillors per month to get their problems solved. “Sixty nine per cent of them were women. Although there was a general complaint among women councillors that they did not have the power to resolve people’s issues, they were still seen making an effort to visit relevant institutions and meet officials to resolve their issues. They were also more easily accessible than their male counterparts,” says Bari who has recently written a book on the experiences of women councillors, titled ‘An Unfinished struggle: the Tale of the Women Councilors’ Network’.
Tahira Asif, who was elected as a councillor in the 2001 local body elections from Lahore and finally reached the National Assembly in the 2002 general election on the seats reserved for women, says: “I got the honour to chair the National Assembly four times in the absence of the speaker while on October 22, 2006 I also represented Pakistan in the UN General Assembly. But in 2008 my party did not award me a ticket because I could not fulfill ‘their demands’.”
Women’s rights activist, Farida Shaheed shares with TNS the issues women face in public spaces
The News on Sunday: Having a vast experience of working in the social sector and for women’s rights, how do you see the role of Pakistani women in politics at the local level? Have they been able to show their presence in local politics?
Farida Shaheed: The local government system enabled a vast number of women to enter the political arena for the first time, including many who do not belong to political families, such as teachers, welfare workers and civil society activists. A significant number of councillors have gone on to join the provincial or national assemblies. The best known politician who moved from the local to the national is probably Nafisa Shah who, having beaten her male opponents on a general seat, was previously the nazim of Khairpur. As nazim she undertook a number of valuable projects for the districts’ development, despite facing considerable resistance. I know many other women councillors have also facilitated development in their districts for the general uplift of the population. In many ways, the local government has functioned as an important nursery for women politicians.
TNS: Some female politicians in Pakistan have made significant strides. They have actually excelled in several areas of legislative functioning. Are they reversing the gender roles by participating in public life?
FS: I think that successful women always help to challenge the stereotype of gender, none more so than women in the public sphere and public office. To reverse the gender roles would need a sea change in societal attitudes — this is an uphill battle, and one in which all of us must contribute. Women in public office play a significant role in bringing this about. To judge by the number of bills presented by women it seems they have reached a critical number in the parliamentary system. The more the women enter the political process, the wider the opportunities for change become.
TNS: For women to break into the political process, the political parties must give 33 percent representation to women in decision-making structures at all levels. What prevents the political parties from allowing women to contest elections directly?
FS: Perhaps men believe women will outshine them in politics! There is no logical reason to exclude women from decision-making. So, the only answer is some fear of what may happen if women are seated at the decision-making tables. The excuse is that women should compete on open seats. But this ignores the centuries of disadvantage women have faced and continue to face, starting with financial resources. Unlike other countries where political parties support their candidates, in Pakistan individual politicians are expected to not only be self-financing but to contribute to the party coffers. This puts women, who are rarely given their share in inheritance and are discouraged from remunerative activities at a huge disadvantage. The affirmative action only somewhat levels the playing field.
TNS: In the present political set up, do you see more women being able to contest elections?
FS: As said, the more the women enter the political process, the wider are the opportunities for others to follow. When the local government was launched, male skeptics told us it was a ludicrous scheme since there would never be enough women candidates to fill the 40,000 seats. But guess what? Across the country — from metroples to remote villages — women came out in overwhelming numbers to fill well over 95 per cent of the seats. Clearly, we have already seen that, given the opportunity, women both desire and are fully capable of being the citizens they are entitled to. They have fearlessly taken on the challenges of unsupportive, sometimes outright hostile, environments.
TNS: Has the rise of militant Islam impacted women in public space? How and to what extent?
FS: The rise of militant Islam is a bane for all Pakistanis and for Pakistan’s sovereignty, and it impacts women and minorities in particular. It intensifies the insecurity of engaging in the public sphere, and that is precisely the purpose of the militants — to scare all of us into silence and women to the chadar and char diwari. Women and minorities become easy prey, and attacking women becomes a means to intimidate their male relatives as well.
Of greater concern to me is the shifting centre of society, where insufficient numbers of citizens are speaking out against not only the specific and horrific atrocities, but also against a whole genre of thinking which is pushing us into a black hole of ignorance and intolerance.
TNS: What can be done to evolve political systems where women are equal players and part of a national discourse?
FS: I think we made a start with the local government. Instead of dissolving the system, the problems in its effective functioning needed to be addressed and resolved. Pakistan has a quota system. However women’s reserved seats in the assemblies are problematic since they divorce women from the powerbase of politics: electorate. This also increases the dependency of women on reserved seats on male politicians who are the vast majority of the Electoral College electing them. In other words, women on reserved seats are not necessarily women’s representatives, although we have seen progress on this front in the last few years. As activists, we have always advocated the need to consider ways in which the affirmative action links women to constituencies, e.g. through reserved constituencies (not seats). This has worked in the local bodies. Also recommended and accepted in the National Plan of Action (NPA) for Women in 1998 is the need to have legislative reform making it compulsory for parties to field a certain number of female candidates. The NPA also has a recommendation that parties must have a certain percentage of female members, according to the number of seats they are contesting. After all, politicians are supposed to represent all their constituency — half of which is female.
At the end of the day, however, women’s increased political participation depends on their ability to enjoy the rights they are theoretically entitled to but do not even know about; when they are able to access and control material resources at par with men; and enjoy the benefits of development, especially health; be free of a fear of violence; and when they are accepted as equal members of society.
TNS: How would you compare or contrast Pakistani women participating in politics with that of Indian women? Have their respective social structures been a help or otherwise?
FS: India has had the benefit of an unbroken democratic process. We have suffered martial and quasi-martial law for more than half our history. Consequently, democracy has not been able to develop here and most citizens are deprived of their legal entitlements. Also, India has a vast middle class and this makes a difference. In view of the huge disadvantages in Pakistan, I do not think women politicians are doing too badly. We need many more women to join in — for which a pre-condition of course is that we continue to have a democratic dispensation which is allowed to grow and take root.
interview was conducted via email.