KARACHI: Whether it’s Badam Zari from Bajaur, or Veeru Kohli form Hyderabad, women are trying their luck by running for the upcoming elections on general seats, highlighting more than ever the role of women in Pakistani politics.
Though female participation helps in terms of making specific policies related to women, MNA Bushra Gohar of Awami National Party thinks serving women is not the only purpose of a woman politician.
“We shouldn’t be asking these questions now. Women politicians have played an active role in everyway. Why is nobody asking a male politician whether his joining politics has helped men in anyway?” she asks. Gohar believes that women make their own space in a party and that space is never available on a platter. “It also depends on how much space the party is willing to give a woman politician depending on the party leaders’ mindset,” she adds.
Former deputy secretary general of the PPPP, Dr. Nafisa Shah, says that women participation is more necessary than ever. She says that ideally the representation should be 50 per cent but blames the “cultural mindset” in preventing that.
Beginning her political career on a reserved seat, Shah feels that reserved seats are fine as far as creating a space is concerned. But after that one needs to push forward. “Our male contemporaries do grumble about women elected on reserved seats, getting equal space as them. But we are pushing forward.” She says that many women get tangled in dynastic politics and though the reserved seats are looked down upon, she feels that it is “generally a good system for introducing women.”
Given the recent shuffle of reserved seats in Punjab, which largely went to family members of politicians, the president of the Jamaat-i-Islami women’s wing Dr. Samiha Raheel Qazi said that Pakistan still has a long way to go in terms of placing a deserving candidate on a reserved seat.
“Political parties need democracy within their own cadres in order to give women a chance to fight on general seats. A reserved seat is only a cosmetic presentation not a real one. Those who deserve it still can’t make it to parliament,” she adds.
With the recent attacks on offices of political parties, Shah explains: “The continuing attacks on the election offices of ANP, PPPP and MQM, will shrink the space women have created for themselves,” adding, “Progressive parties need to come back to power in the upcoming elections.”
Badam Zari from Bajaur has already made history by contesting elections independently. And there are other candidates who are contesting elections from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa this time around, which was previously very rare. While Badam Zari kept up her efforts, another candidate Gullana Bibi, from Tank, had to withdraw her candidature following threats. Gohar adds that, “Zari is supported by her family, and that helps a lot, especially in such cases.”
Speaking of space and the impact of having a woman politician on board, Muttahida Qaumi Movement Senator Nasreen Jalil says that there have been many positive developments too. At present, there is a caucus of women representatives in parliament who discuss burning matters irrespective of party affiliations. “It wasn’t the case previously. There was no impact of having a woman candidate, as most get elected on reserved seats,” Jalil says.
She adds that earlier, the only advantage of having women candidates on a reserved seat was “in terms of prominence, to show we have women in parliament.” But today it is becoming our need to have women candidates, especially those who work and deserve to be there, because when it comes to taking an initiative, Jalil says that many politicians seem hesitant, in making a woman in charge.
“There is an hesitation among parties and among women themselves to go for general seats,” she says, adding at the same time that, women who come from lower middle class families understand issues better, whereas those who come through “family links, can’t play an active role, as they don’t know the issues at hand.” For that purpose, Jalil believes that more women need to contest on general seats than on a reserved seat.
Giving an example of a military operation in the 90s, Jalil said that it was mostly women workers, from middle and lower middle class, who demonstrated against the operation and took hold of party offices, while men had to go underground. “Those women were workers too. They did their part irrespective of the consequences.”
Just like Gohar, Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) member Marvi Memon, thinks that women candidates, if “competent and hardworking” can achieve a lot. However, she believes that the real fight is with the “feudal mindset and the fear wall” that keeps political parties as well as people from moving forward. Referring to reserved seats as crutches, she said that, “My party allowed me to walk without crutches. In order to bring in real change, we need women who can walk without crutches.”
While a lot of legislation regarding women’s rights has been passed in the past five years, female representatives feel that there is still a lot that needs to be done.
Women representing the three mainstream parties, ANP, PPP and MQM said their first priority will be the domestic violence bill, which was under debate in the previous parliament. Gohar said that for her, the domestic violence bill and the Hudood Ordinance will be a priority. “The former became a victim of political reconciliation and the latter has been distorted way beyond recognition,” she added. Nasreen Jalil, apart from focusing on the domestic violence bill, said she would make education and economic empowerment of women her priority.
Though a bill on preventing crimes against women was passed, Shah said that crimes against women are still compoundable. “We need dedicated laws for acid crimes and to make crimes against women non-negotiable, not to be settled by families or murderers. That is a serious issue and needs to be addressed,” she added.
For Samiha Qazi, apart from health, security and education, she wants to specifically focus on Islamic inheritance laws for women. “We need to understand that participation of women is necessary in politics. But it needs not to be imposed. We are still a long way back from letting a woman decide what she wants to do or be,” she concludes.