pakistan parliament(1)

Affirmative actions must not, Marvi argues, be taken as ends in themselves. They should be able to take us to a well-defined goal: enabling environment for women to be at par with men.

It is more than a decade since women’s quota was introduced in legislatures at provincial and federal levels in 2002. For a long time, it had been one of the central demands of women’s movement in Pakistan, with the view to bring women in the mainstream of political decision-making as active partners. Following the global trend of affirmative actions in late 1990s, for mainstreaming the marginalized communities – women, religious and ethnic minorities – women’s rights activists in Pakistan negotiated with the democratic governments for a 50% quota for women at all levels in the elected bodies during the 1990s when the Constitution of Pakistan was abrogated in October 1999 after an army General appointed himself as Chief Executive of the country following a bloodless coup.

Despite the coup, the negotiations for women’s quota continued with the view to keep denting the state from within by working through the system instead of staying out of it. The struggle soon brought fruit and a 33% quota for women was approved in the Local Bodies and 17% for the Federal and Provincial Assemblies (which was lower than agreed by the previous democratic regime during our negotiations in August 1999). It was still like a dream come true. One still remembers the confusions among political parties in 2002. Many traditional politicians were thrown out of the system through forced exile or through conditions like mandatory education (at least graduation) clause to qualify for being Member of Parliament. Seventeen percent additional seats reserved for women created huge space for new entrants to the corridors traditionally male territory.

Having lived through two consecutive tenures of women sitting in legislatures for ten years now, Pakistan needs to graduate to next level of women’s political participation and dynamism. Affirmative actions must not be taken as ends in themselves. They should rather be very clearly taking us to a well-defined goal i.e., enabling environment for women to be at par with men to play active, equal and equitable role in decision making at all levels. By being content with just the steps taken as affirmative action for a long period of time, the spirit starts dying down. Reserved seats for women in elected bodies were affirmative action to help mainstream women in decision-making process. If no additional steps are taken to consolidate and strengthen the gains made through them, the impact thus made, it is apprehended, might vanish altogether.

Instead of the direct elections on the reserved seats, political parties fill these seats via loosely defined proportional representation system. Appropriate modeof elections on reserved seats could have been, however, devised through consultations with women rights activists. This lack of constitutional provision for election mechanism on reserved seats for women is feared to facilitate elite capture of women’s quota seats.

Moreover, this tends to limit the women’s participation to only the quota seats wherein parties seem to be less inclined to try women as candidates in direct elections. This pushes women permanently away from the electoral politics. For example, in 2002 there were total 79 women in the National Assembly out of which 66 were on quota seats while 13 had won direct elections. Similarly, in 2008 there were 76 women in National Assembly, out which only 10 women had won direct elections. Total 64 women had contested general elections for National Assembly in 2008 out of which only 34 were supported by different political parties, rest were contesting as independent candidates.

The National Assembly that took oath in 2008 saw many encouraging things especially with the perspective of women and minorities. Election of a woman Speaker was one of them and establishment of a Women’s Parliamentary Caucus was another. One landmark achievement of the Caucus was an across-the-board consensus among the women parliamentarians on women’s quota in granting party tickets for general elections on winnable seats. I remember, how more optimist and slightly more idealist women (writer included) were insisting for 50% quota in party tickets, only to be rubbished by more realistic ones. After great deliberations, we settled for demanding at least 10% tickets for women from all parties. Too bad, most of the right wing and right of the center parties were not ready for this ‘radical’ change. No rule could be settled on this nor a decision could be achieved.

With great concern it is learned that Jamaat-i-Islami and Jamiat-i-Ulama-i-Islam (F) have completely ignored women as far as general seats are concerned. PMLN has come up from 4 women that it fielded to run for National Assembly in 2002, 6 in 2008 and 7 for 2013. MQM fielded 4 women in 2002, 5 in 2008 and 7 in 2013. PMLQ has come down from 8 to 4 while PTI has come up from 2 to 4 women. PPP tops the list with highest number of women, 11, who would be running for the National Assembly in 2013. This, however, has dropped compared to its number of fielded candidates in 2008, i.e. 15 (source: Dawn, April 21, 2013).

This downward trend of not trusting women as direct contestants of elections is upsetting and counterproductive to the concept of women’s quota. If women would not be counted among the voted, as well as the voters, where would the credibility of the entire electoral exercise? It is high time we graduate and evolve the quota system to next level or it would turn into just another cosmetic addition to the electoral process and the legislature.