IWD 2014 | Women’s parliamentary quotas in Pakistan: an insider’s view

One aim of International Women’s Day is to encourage and facilitate more women to take up senior leadership positions in politics and commerce. However, there is much debate over how best to achieve this, especially when it comes to positive discrimination. In our 2014 IWD special, Sidra Khalid examines the pros and cons of women’s parliamentary quotas in her native Pakistan.


U.S. Congressmen Conduct Legislative Exchange with Pakistani Parliamentarians

Politicians attend a seminar at the Pakistan Institute for Parliamentary Studies in 2008. © US Embassy Pakistan/Creative Commons

As a Pakistani, I had long been interested in women’s rights issues when I undertook an internship at the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus office in the Pakistani parliament. I also went on to conduct ethnographic fieldwork focussing on the experiences of women parliamentarians as my undergraduate thesis. The internship itself was a unique and strangely humbling experience. If rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous decision-makers of my country was not enough, I was also made highly aware of the layered complexity of Pakistani politics, in particular the marked difference between genders.

As Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the soft-spoken anglophile lawyer who founded Pakistan, said: ‘No struggle can ever succeed without women participating side by side with men’. Yet in the first ever constituent assembly of the new country of Pakistan, born in 1947 from a bloody and historic partition, there were only two women elected to power.

To this day, in a society where men are more respected and have greater access to resources and opportunities, women’s participation in politics remains an uneasy one. Working in the Assembly, speaking to women parliamentarians, I began to realise both the feminist push and the patriarchal pull on women’s political participation.

During my research, I spoke to a parliamentarian who told me that debates within Parliament often took on a distinctly sexist tone, citing one comment from a male member of the National Assembly, ‘Well, are we supposed to sit down like women and put on bangles?’.

On the other hand, I once accompanied a prominent parliamentarian to a protest where redundant government employees waited to hear her address. In a country where women’s claim to public spaces is contested, I was conscious of the fact that I was standing on a main road in the capital city of Islamabad, hemmed in by the crowd and the parliamentarian’s bodyguards. I was therefore surprised to hear the parliamentarian speak with a calm authority that was at odds with my own nervous light-headedness. More importantly, people listened, calling out her name and chanting party slogans.

So what exactly has allowed for women’s increasing political participation? The answer is quite simple: reserved quotas for women in Parliament. Although reserved seats were made part of the Constitution as early as 1956, it was not until 2002 that they reached any significant percentage. Under the rule of Pervez Musharraf, the military dictator with surprisingly liberal values, 33% of seats were reserved for women in all tiers of local government, including union councils, tehsils (municipalities), and districts. Moreover, 17% of seats were reserved for women in both the Provincial and National Assemblies. According to Farzana Bari, a women’s rights activist, this move ‘radically changed’ the political landscape of Pakistan with an advent of ‘36,105 women into local government and 205 in the 12th national and provincial assemblies and the senate’.

However, there is a darker side to the quota system. Mainly, it leads to a loss in legitimacy. In a political sphere where men have higher social and political capital, women often have to work twice as hard to prove themselves. In the 2010 Budgetary Sessions, I witnessed women deliver well-researched speeches while men often underprepared, preferring to deliver addresses on the spot. Even more dangerously, women in reserved seats often attracted the disdain of their male colleagues due to the feeling that they had become politicians ‘by proxy’, implying chance and the possibility that they had replaced a more valuable candidate. During my fieldwork, a female MNA (Member National Assembly) told me, ‘Baithay hue seat mil gaye’: that men felt women got seats while ‘sitting’. The word ‘sitting’ or ‘baithna’ is very important here, since in Urdu it implies laziness and lack of effort, thus not deserving of the power and privileges that are associated with being a Member of Parliament. As one of my participants commented, ‘Women are doing a lot, but political recognition remains low.’

In a country that experienced its first democratic transition only last year and where women’s rights are under constant threat from conservative factions of society – including the Tehreek-e-Taliban – I feel that quotas are both necessary and enabling for increasing women’s political participation. However, women parliamentarians in Pakistan still have a long way to go in creating space and recognition for themselves.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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