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Herald exclusive: Running on reserve

June 25, 2013


— File Photo.
— File Photo.

On May 15, four days after the people of Pakistan voted in a general election for about 800 new federal and provincial parliamentarians, the Lahore High Court issued a notice to the Election Commission of Pakistan on a petition seeking a stay order against the election – rather, selection – on reserved seats for women in the National Assembly and the Punjab assembly.

The petitioner, a local lawyer by the name of Tariq Aziz Malik who says he is acting in the public’s interest, based his case on three points: that these reserved seats cost approximately one billion rupees per year in salaries, perks and privileges and are an undue burden on a wilted national exchequer; that the system of proportional representation used for election on reserved seats contravenes Article 226 of the Constitution which stipulates that all elections be held via secret ballot; and that the Supreme Court of Pakistan has already expressed an opinion to this effect – known in legal parlance as obiter dictum – while hearing petitions challenging the 18th Amendment.

“The judge presiding over my case told me I was stirring up a hornet’s nest,” said Malik, in a telephone conversation with the Herald. “I told him I didn’t care.” Malik says that the discrepancies in the reserved seats first became apparent to him when he was asked to look into the case of a woman elected on a reserved seat from Punjab but who, in fact, was a permanent resident of Islamabad (there is no women quota in the legislature for the federal territories). Although his main complaint now is the barefaced lack of merit involved in the allocation of reserved seats. “Women with no prior background in politics are elected upon the mere whim and fancy of party heads — what can these women possibly achieve?”

Across the city from the Lahore High Court, where Malik is currently fighting his case, is the neighbourhood of Baghbanpura. Since the 15th century, it has been home to Lahore’s celebrated Mian family. This is a family of many firsts: the first Muslim judge in British India, the first Muslim chief accountant at the Imperial Bank of India and the first Chief Justice of Pakistan were all Mians from Baghbanpura. So was one of the two women who were members of Pakistan’s first Constituent Assembly: Begum Jehanara Shah Nawaz. Earlier in 1932, she took part in the Second Round Table Conference in London with fellow female Indian representatives and made a case for reserved parliamentary seats for women, provision for which was eventually made in the Government of India Act, 1935.

The 120 million or so women of the subcontinent, the ‘suffragettes’ argued then, were disadvantaged on so many levels that political parity could only be achieved by force of law. In a sense, this reasoning pre-empted the criticism now put forward by Malik: women may have no prior background in politics, yes — but one solution to that may be to grant them easier access to power, at least for a little while. Female legislators sometimes have to be twice as good to get half as far, as the saying goes, so it is perhaps within reason to demand a temporary tilt to the political playing field for their advantage.

Although last month’s election results suggest affirmative action is not proving to be a means to that end. Only six women made it to the National Assembly on general seats after May 11 election: Faryal Talpur, Azra Fazal Pechuho and Fehmida Mirza in Sindh; Saira Afzal Tarrar, Ghulam Bibi Bharwana and Sumera Malik in Punjab — political stalwarts in their own right, at this point in time, but whose initial entry into the all boys’ club of parliament was through a family pass, so to speak, much like that of Begum Shah Nawaz in the 1930s. Another 60 will join these six on reserved seats, in continuation of the quota system instituted by General (retd) Pervez Musharraf’s Legal Framework Order (LFO) of 2002. But there were more than twice as many directly elected female representatives (13) in the National Assembly of 2002 as there are now, and 16 in the National Assembly of 2008. The steep drop back to six in 2013 – the same number as were elected in 1997, when there were no accompanying reserved seats – points to only one thing: that the enlightened and moderate dictator’s real gift to the fairer sex was the graduate degree requirement which prompted scores of suddenly ineligible veteran politicians to flood the parliament with their more educated sisters, daughters, wives and daughters-in-law.

But what about the women who entered politics through the LFO-instituted quotas in the local government (33 per cent), provincial assemblies (17–18 per cent) and National Assembly (17–18 per cent) — why didn’t they graduate to the arena of general elections or inspire others to do the same?

Veeru Kohli contested the 2013 general election from Sindh.— File Photo
Veeru Kohli contested the 2013 general election from Sindh.— File Photo

It appears that they did try. An unprecedented number of women [see graph] did contest the 2013 general election; some, such as Badam Zari in the tribal areas and Veeru Kohli in Sindh, became household names in the process. They, however, did not win. As writer and activist Marvi Sirmed points out, only a fraction of these candidates ran on a ticket by a political party — a mere 30 per cent, to be precise. “With great concern it is learned that Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamiat Ulama-e-Islam–Fazl have completely ignored women as far as general seats are concerned,” she noted prior to the polls, quoting a Dawn report.

Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PMLN) has increased the number of its women candidates — from four in 2002, to six in 2008 and seven in 2013, she pointed out. “Muttahida Quami Movement fielded four women in 2002, five in 2008 and seven in 2013. Pakistan Muslim League–Quaid-e-Azam has come down from eight [in 2008] to four [in 2013], while Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf has come up from two [in 2002] to four women [in 2013]. Pakistan Peoples Party tops the list with the highest number of women, 11 … this, however, has dropped compared to its number of fielded candidates in 2008 — that is, 15.”

Given the pre-election obsession with the ‘politics of electable candidates’, the decline in the number of party-backed female candidates is not surprising. In any case, why would political parties be compelled to field women on general seats when women have other ways of entering parliament? Nisar Tanveer, a PMLN legislator on a reserved seat in 2008, says she wanted to try her luck on a general seat this election season. “I held a few meetings with party leaders,” recalls Tanveer, who has also twice served as a local government councillor in Rawalpindi district. “But they said, next time.” According to the Free and Fair Election Network, she was a top parliamentary performer in the outgoing National Assembly — she asked the most questions during Question Hour (535) and raised the most Matters of Public Importance (30). “I’m still on the list for reserved seats, though,” she quickly adds.

In the fall of 2011, the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus – a coming together of female legislators across party lines, itself a historic first – attempted to redress the tendency among political parties to not field women on general seats by demanding that each political party reserve a 10 per cent quota for women in granting tickets to the candidates contesting general seats. Nothing came of this, says Sirmed, primarily because the idea was a little too radical for the right-wing and right-of-centre parties to accept. Though the resolution, in and of itself, indicated a more sophisticated approach towards the notion of representation.

Purists will argue that democracy is an un-gendered concept – as the refrain “by the people, for the people, of the people” would have us believe – and so the question of which sex sits in the parliament and drafts the country’s laws is irrelevant. Women’s rights activists will make a case that women are different and have different experiences, and these should be duly represented in public life. But in championing the current slapdash structure of reserved seats, these activists discount the differences – of caste and class and creed, among others – within the community of women.

The idea is not to window dress parliament or to craft it into a perfect microcosm of the country at large — in no country can different communities and groups of population get parliamentary representation matching their actual strength. The idea is to give women a fighting chance to win (or lose) just like men, all while placing faith in the collective wisdom of the masses and in people’s right to choose their representatives.