Democratisation of Pakistan cannot be guaranteed without ensuring a balanced participation by every segment
The political history of Pakistan since the establishment of Muslim League has been studded with many women of great stature like Begum Jahanara Shahnawaz, who was the first women in Asia to preside over a legislative session. The magnanimous political, diplomatic and literary contributions of Shaista Shurawardy Ikramullah, who was the first Asian and Muslim woman to receive a PhD from the University of London, are etched in the fabric of our history.
The most notable of them, Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah and her tireless struggle for Pakistan standing shoulder to shoulder with our nation’s founder is indeed commendable. Proving herself to be the torch bearer of women emancipation and their participation in politics, she opened new avenues for them by becoming the first women to run for presidential elections. She was among the few women who have played their significant part in the progress and development of this great country.
Albeit, almost all of these women belonged to aristocratic backgrounds and well established families. The true representatives of the common Sub-continent women, which were poverty and illiteracy ridden, were nowhere to be found. These were the conditions in the early days of Pakistan, but unfortunately these do not seem to have changed a lot in 70 years, majority of the women that participate in elections are still from political or wealthy families thus skewering the overall statistics of female participation in politics.
In Pakistan, the representation of women in elections over the years has been subsequently addressed by delegating special quotas for women in National and provincial assemblies, the first constituent assembly of Pakistan had a three per cent quota of women that was equivalent to 30 seats and out of which only two seats were occupied. This quota has been subject to haphazard fluctuations and finally after the 2002 elections it was raised to 17 per cent of the provincial and National Assembly seats under Article 51 of the constitution. The true deplorable condition of women participation in politics can be analysed through the data of 2013 elections, in which out of 847 combined seats of National and provincial assemblies only 21 seats were won by women through direct elections. The practice of assigning this quota has instead yielded undesirable results, as it gives the impression to the public that it is an esoteric subject meant only for the women of elite and political backgrounds.
The question that why do women need to participate in politics can easily be addressed by citing various reasons beyond the global agendas of modernisation and liberalisation. The fundamental concept of democracy revolves around the people, the people as a whole and not as people belonging to a specific gender or class of a society. The democratisation of the country cannot be guaranteed without ensuring a balanced participation by every segment, the modern connotation of the mandate given to a government cannot be honored unless the major segment of that population does not have its political say in it. This means that women need to have a fair share in the representation of their interests at the highest echelons of the state superstructure.
Furthermore, there are numerous subjects relating to the female gender that cannot be addressed or invoked without having a considerable amount of female representation in the legislature, the perfect manifestation of this would be the Girls Council of Saudi Arabia without any women at the forefront. This curtails the fundamental right of women to influence policy agendas that may be related to their well-being and in cases where they might be the primary stakeholders.
In a praetorian democracy like Pakistan, the political parties have nonetheless been ordained to act as the gatekeepers of democracy, the fundamental responsibility of ensuring smooth and swift functioning of this multi-party democracy rests ultimately on them. There is a large share of responsibility that rests on the shoulders of political parties to introduce and make sure the women participation in politics is increased at the ground level. The current predicaments that the political party system has created for women range from gender blind party regulations and documents, gender-prejudiced candidate recruitment and selection, nepotistic promotions and tickets, little or no representation in decision making bodies and lack of equal access to party funds. In addition to these the nominations for reserved seats and women-wing higher positions are also retained to be given to family members or relatives of senior party office holders.
It can be said without a shadow of doubt that to increase the representation of women in the political atmosphere of Pakistan, provision of education, job opportunities, facilitation of basic rights and security especially to women are pre-requisites. However, there are some other short-term remedies with minimal side effects that can provide a sustainable base for future growth in political participation of this neglected segment of the society.
Most of these tonics which may be suggested to apply on our current political structure relate to the political parties and their intra affairs, the first and the foremost step that needs to be taken is to ensure a transparent system of intra-party democracy on gender neutral basis, so that a woman has an equal opportunity to attain a senior position in the party.
Moreover, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) should sanction a ‘gender audit’ or a diversity audit commission which will be established within the party hierarchy headed by the General Secretary and one external gender mainstreaming expert. They would be authorised to determine the areas and positions where the women are underrepresented and are facing discrimination especially in the pre and post electoral period.
To wipe the tint of aristocratic and political inheritance on the reserved seats for women, ECP should regulate that no immediate family member or spouse of any party office holder will be allowed to acquire these seats. Furthermore, the party documents and manifestos should clearly stipulate an agenda for increasing women participation as an objective, and it should be ensured that there is a least minimum representation of women in the main decision making body. This is already in practice at a progressive stage in the UK, where the Green Party has a Dual Presidency system which requires that a man and a woman co-chair the presidency of the party. A similar statute is there in place for Labour Party under which out of the three frontbench members of parliament at least one should be a woman.
To strengthen the sense of security among women who take part in politics there should be an established complaint mechanism to address gender-based misconduct or discrimination inside parties, which should internally analyse these complaints and forward them to the ECP for further inquiry. There is a need to introduce a reform in the electoral system where, election conducted on any polling station would be considered void ab initio if at least 50 per cent of the registered female voters do not cast their vote.
It may be argued that almost all of these recommendations give a top-bottom solution to the problem of under-representation of women in politics, but at this point in time long-term efforts need to be catalysed with serious pro-active measures to solve this problem even if they may seem to be a bit autocratic in nature. However, there is a demand for serious national backing and consensus that may convince the government and especially the party leaders to recognise the need for sustainable efforts to enhance the role of women in statecraft. This can only be ensured by imparting the knowledge of this important responsibility in women through media, academics and through initiatives by advocacy coalitions as well as civil society in a swift yet stringent manner.