On glass ceilings

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HILLARY Clinton’s candidacy for presidency of the United States has revived questions about women’s participation in political competition. Clinton is the first female nominee of a major political party in the US. Commentators all over the country are hailing this as a ground-breaking event, and asserting that she has finally broken the glass ceiling.

Pakistan had already elected Benazir Bhutto prime minister twice and has appointed women to important cabinet positions, Hina Rabbani Khar being one example. Does this mean that Pakistani women were able to break the glass ceiling long before American women? No matter the cultural and social hurdles, are Pakistani women better off than American women when it comes to political competition?

In our research, recently published in the International Political Science Review, we attempted to shed light on these questions. We collected data from dozens of men and women who participated in the lawyers’ movement through survey questionnaires and interviews, and asked the respondents about their backgrounds and their opinions with regard to running for office.

The data collected shows that women who participated in the lawyers’ movement were as ambitious as men, if not more so, in seeking political office. For instance, 72pc of women and 68pc of men said that running for political office in the future had crossed their mind. None of the 24 females surveyed said that they would rule out running for political office in the future.


Most women cannot overcome barriers to public office.


These results differ from similar surveys fielded in the United States, where women are much less likely to report wanting to run for office, even when they are as qualified as men. Pakistani women certainly take the prize in this contest.

Cracks in this promising picture start to appear, however, when we move from interest in running for political office to actually taking steps to do so. Despite a high expression of desire to run for political office, far fewer women than men reported having taken any concrete steps towards doing so in Pakistan. For example, while 34pc of men in the sample had talked to community leaders about running for political office, only about 5pc of women had done so. The barriers — the dirty nature of politics, perils of negative campaigning, loss of privacy, and the effects of campaigning on family — are stronger deterrents for women than they are for men.

The picture starts getting even murkier when we analyse the data a bit further. Men and women who participated in the lawyers’ movement differed significantly in socio-economic class; male participants came from across the socio-economic spectrum, while female participants came only from elite backgrounds. All female participants surveyed had at least a Master’s degree, and all of them had attended English medium schools — a symbol of a well-to-do background. This sharply contrasts with what we observe in Pakistani society as a whole, where the female literacy rate falls far lower than the male literacy rate.

Surely, opportunities to enter into political competition squarely depend on your socio-economic background and on who you know. While this hurdle exists for both Pakistani men as well as women, for women this hurdle is formidable. While men from all socio-economic backgrounds can contemplate running for office, only women from an elite class tend to have the option to do so.

The data, therefore, indicates that the ascension of women into high political offices in Pakistan is just a mirage. True, we have had a female prime minister and female foreign minister, but the rise of both these women — touted as symbols of broken glass ceilings in politics — can be explained by Pakistan’s political landscape.

When political power emanates from kinship and networks, women can rise as members of privileged groups just like men. That is why most of the women who actually participate in politics have more resources than other women in the general population and also tend to come from politically powerful families — like Benazir Bhutto and Hina Rabbani Khar, who belonged to powerful feudal families. This phenomenon is not unique to Pakistan but exists in other societies as well, as Dr Farida Jalalzai discusses in her book, Shattered, Cracked, or Firmly Intact? Women and the Executive Glass Ceiling Worldwide.

The real test of gender equity in Pakistan will come when a female from a modest background without political connections is able to participate in politics and rise to hold a position in public office. Until then, the glass ceiling remains firmly intact.

Ghazia Aslam is a policy fellow at the School of Policy, Government and International Affairs of George Mason University, US.

Meg Rincker is associate professor of political science at Purdue University Northwest, US.

Mujtaba Isani is a research fellow at the Religion and Politics Excellence Cluster at the University of Muenster, Germany.

Published in Dawn, August 14th, 2016