2017 has been called the year of the woman, a tribute to women’s rights activists working relentlessly to combat conservative leadership. The year started with the highly televised US women’s march, that was replicated around the world. Following in the same vein, the #MeToo movement named and shamed sexual predators changing gender politics at work. 2018 has made similar strides as Ireland legalised abortion and Pakistan passed a transgender protection bill. However, this trend has not affected the Pakistan 2018 elections narrative, which is repeatedly stuck on the two tracks of anti-corruption and economic development. Women’s rights and women’s voices are considered too insignificant to be given any air time.
This apathy towards women is not new nor surprising. One reason for it is the gender gap in voter turn-out. According to research conducted by Making All Voices Count, in 2013 Lahore had an eight percent gender gap in voter turnout. Additional statistics show that eight districts including Lahore, Karachi and Faisalabad account for a three million gender gap. Considering that these are urban centres where polling stations should be more accessible to women, these results are disappointing. Statistics from rural areas are even worse. In 2013 the ECP set up seventeen women’s polling stations in the Balwal, Mogla and Dhoke Dhall districts in Punjab where no votes were cast because the men in the area has collectively banned women from voting. Likewise, in KP, the regions of Malakand, Hangu and Lower Dir saw the same issue during byelections. When the matter was taken to the Peshawar High Court, the judge threw out the petition and even questioned if women had a constitutional right to vote.
Other than the restriction on voting, there is apathy towards women’s rights due to the male dominant narrative in Pakistani politics. There is a common belief, that ‘Pakistan is facing urgent structural problems that deserve undivided attention, therefore ‘women’s rights’ must temporarily bow out of the race’. This belief has permeated through all segments of society and is echoed by talk show hosts and armchair critics alike. This flawed logic only results in silencing women. Waiting for an opportune moment to politely ask for rights is futile because it will never be inoffensive to do so; there will always be stakeholders protecting a system that they benefit from. This logic is also patronising. Asking women to wait patiently for a greenlight from their ‘well intentioned’ representatives reinforces the sentiment that they know better for us than we know for ourselves. Many women in Pakistan have internalised this misogynist message and have silenced themselves due to it.
Further indifference towards women’s rights stems from the idea that women’s issues exist only in the vacuums of family law and violence against women. While these matters are highly significant on their own, it is a disservice to not acknowledge that women’s issues integrally intersect with many others. The right to healthcare, for instance, is significantly watered down if it does not include access to reproductive healthcare. Similarly, for an economy to reap the fruits of an educated society, all genders must have equal access to basic and higher education. Anti-corruption too is linked to women’s issues, as when public funds are pilfered, programmes that support marginalised groups suffer. The list goes on, access to mobility, access to childcare, access to water, health and safety at work, maternal rights, refugee rights are all tied to women’s rights.
Political parties and institutions use tokenism in an attempt to placate women’s right’s activists all the while maintaining the status quo. Most mainstream parties have barely appointed a handful of women in the reserved seats to give the illusion of welcoming women’s voices. This rests on the idea that ‘one woman can accurately represent all women’, which then paves the way for ‘the incompetence of one woman is the incompetence of all women’. Needless to say, this is immature. Women’s issues are complex; and merely being a woman does not ensure that one would have the relevant legal and political knowledge to effectively advocate for them. Similarly, not all women are interested in advocating for women’s rights. If their political position is conditional on blind support for the respective party’s chauvinist policies, then even female parliamentarians have no choice but to pander to that. Additionally, Pakistani politics demands that female parliamentarians appear progressive but still push their party’s conservative agenda. This pressures women in parliament to make contradictory statements like “I am not a feminist, but I believe in women empowerment.” One must recognise that appointing any woman in positions of power will not solve the problem, but rather numerous, progressive and competent women.
The public at large, unfortunately does get placated with token women in high positions. People assume that women are empowered to advocate for women’s rights because they hold public office, yet this is not always so. The socially constructed environment of political parties is subject to a power matrix, the male leaders of political parties tend to run the party and subjugate the others. There have been numerous accusations of harassment with political parties, which have either been covered up or completely ignored. For example, the leading party in Punjab has had key members accused of harassment and intimidation to cover up the harassment. Likewise, the main political party in KP has had accusations of sexual harassment swept under the table because despite the women being harassed emailing their complaints to the top party brass, “it didn’t go through formal channels”. There are no systems in place to investigate the accounts, and party members either excuse the abuse and malign or blackmail the women speaking about it. This creates not only a hostile but also a dangerous work environment for women, reinforcing the sentiment that women are allowed to hold public office but not welcome to do so.
Demanding equal and fair representation for women seems like a distance dream divorced from the current political climate. There is a lot of work to be done. More women need to participate in the electoral process, misogynistic myths need to be dismantled, more competent and progressive women need to hold office, and structures to protect and empower female parliamentarians need to be created. However, one must not get disillusioned but continue to hold high expectations, for only when the destination is clear can the journey advance.
Faisal Yaqoob is pursuing a PhD at the University of Dundee, UK. Maheen Saeed is currently pursuing an MSc. Counselling at the University of Abertay, U.K, and teaches English as a Second Language at Amina Muslim Women's Resource Centre.