Why is women's political participation in Pakistan vulnerable?
Women's political participation in Pakistan depends directly on their academic education as well as their social status and family. Therefore, any collective activity by women in Pakistan is primarily a reflection of the intellectual and psychological conflicts of the areas in which they live. For example, the tribal areas have the lowest participation rate, and the eastern and central regions enjoy the highest one. If the presence of women in the political and legislative spheres becomes more prominent, the rules of political game in Pakistan can bring about fundamental changes in society, in a way that modernizes the communication patterns of women and makes them bolder to achieve their rights; and, of course, it is largely at odds with the general views of the extremist parties.
By: Mariam Verij Kazemi
The issue of women's political participation has turned into a global issue these days, and Pakistan is no exception. Women's political participation has always been a major challenge for the parties’ leaders since Pakistan's independence. The Pakistan governments have made various reforms in different periods to guarantee the political empowerment of women. These reforms include granting 17% of reserved seats to women in parliament, allocating a 33% quota to women in the local government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and passing new laws against harassment of women. All these reforms are being implemented at various times to guarantee the women’s empowerment. The issue of women's political participation is divided into two categories: political participation and public participation.
Women's political participation is determined by "women's participation in party gatherings," "women’s participation in election campaigns," and "women's participation in public demonstrations." On the other hand, women's public participation includes "solving women's local problems," "their participation in solving the street problems," "women's participation in solving family disputes," "women's assistance to the abused women" and "their assistance to women in court."
Contrary to democratic structures in developed countries, Pakistan's social and political texture does not support a truly democratic political system, especially for women. Despite the significant quota (33%) which was given to women at the local level in 2001, there is a deep gap in their actual representation in Pakistan, because the structure of political parties strongly restricts women’s representation in the political process. Political parties in Pakistan are in fact a number of weak institutions with a limited democratic structure that have negatively affected women's political representation.
As organizations, political parties are based on a patriarchal hierarchy that prevents women from formally entering the political process. In fact, the Pakistani women are experiencing an unsupportive social and political environment inside the political parties, and this directly affects the choice of party leaders when it comes to selecting the potential candidates for the party’s posts. Meanwhile, the researchers highlight the vital role of customs, gender beliefs, and religious values in determining women's spaces, social roles, access to higher education, economic opportunities, and legal rights. These characteristics can exclude women from participating in politics. Despite the significant increase in women's political representation in the Pakistani local government, women's participation has been limited due to the patriarchal social and political context of South Asia. Therefore, gender beliefs about the status and role of women have an important impact on the level of their participation in the social life.
In general, women's social, political and economic activities are mainly controlled by family, tribe and local customs. For this reason, women do not experience a personal and independent life, and their activities depend on meeting the family and society’s expectations. Hence, social perceptions about the role of women have a great impact on their political, social and economic demands. In a cultural structure where the presence of women in public is always considered a strange phenomenon, public transactions are always difficult for them. Besides men's negative attitude toward women's political participation as well as the fact that society do not allow women to participate in politics as normally as men, many other factors, including lack of self-confidence, male-dominated society, lack of education, ignorance, lack of women’s political parties, the heavy burden of household activities, religious mentality, and culture of women’s isolation, do not allow women to participate in politics like men.
On the other hand, parties do not support women's candidacy. In addition, lack of funding is the most important factor that women are grappling with in their own parties. Parties are mostly funded by the rich men, and certainly women cannot compete with their male counterparts. Thus, women remain powerless and unsupported in their respective political parties. Moreover, women do not have enough power in the parties’ executive committees, which ultimately affects their status and position in those parties. During the process of nominating and selecting candidates for various positions, the views of women are not often taken into account.
This comes as before Pakistan’s independence, women were as active as men due to the efforts of some leaders such as Fatima Jinnah. However, this political activity did not turn into an effective participation in the mainstream politics for a long time. Pakistan's first Constituent Assembly, which lasted from 1947 to 1954, had only two women out of a total of 79 members. No women were elected in the 1956 indirect elections. In the same year, however, the constitution approved women's voting right as well as their reserved seats. Between 1962 and 1965, out of 156 members of parliament, only eight were women, a number that dropped to six between the years of 1965 -1969. However, significant progress was made regarding the presence of women in politics during the time of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, which reached to its peak by 2013.
In 2017, the law of elections required all parties to give at least 5% of their share to women, which was considered a very positive step emotionally. In the 2018 elections, the largest number of female candidates was observed with 182 people because the mainstream parties adhered to their minimum quota. However, the number of elected members of the parliament has not yet exceeded from that of 2008 and has reached to only 15 people. A women rights activist, however, said: "although we live in a patriarchal society, women's participation in politics is increasing. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf has been very supportive and we are trying to make laws to empower women in all areas. However, creating more space for women in leadership and politics needs a long process. We must teach our children the core values of democracy so that they can learn to respect the rights of women and other marginalized groups."
According to experts, women's political representation (both elective and reserved) in local, provincial, and national governments should also be increased. Their current quota in parliament (17%) and in local governments (33%) is not enough because they make up half of the country's population. Moreover, separate women’s factions should be established within parties to encourage and guarantee their political participation. Finally, activists and female politicians are concerned about the vulnerability of extra-partisan female groups against extremist political influences, especially in provinces where far-right religious groups have more power. In such a highly patriarchal situation with evolving democratic trends, it seems that more quota for women are seriously needed as a tool for women's political empowerment.
Pakistan has designed different plans for promoting gender equality and women's empowerment in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and has called for sufficient investments and appropriate policies in this regard. Pakistan's plans include the establishment of national and provincial commissions on the status of women, which are led by women and would promote women’s empowerment and gender equality policies. Women's empowerment is the first pillar of Pakistan Vision 2025, which shows Islamabad’s commitment to granting a more central role to women in the political, economic and other spheres of life. More than 90 representatives from women's faction of five major political parties have drafted and approved a national action plan to strengthen women's factions and their representation in the decision-making bodies.
However, it seems that women's political participation in Pakistan depends directly on their academic education as well as their social status and family. Therefore, any collective activity by women in Pakistan is primarily a reflection of the intellectual and psychological conflicts of the areas in which they live. For example, the tribal areas have the lowest participation rate, and the eastern and central regions enjoy the highest one. Meanwhile, formation of small female tribal-family organizations is seen as a way out of the ongoing patriarchal traditions and norms. If the presence of women in the political and legislative spheres becomes more prominent, the rules of political game in Pakistan can bring about fundamental changes in society, in a way that modernizes the communication patterns of women and makes them bolder to achieve their rights; and, of course, it is largely at odds with the general views of the extremist parties.
Mariam Verij Kazemi,is a researcher of geopolitical issues