EVER since almost 17 per cent of seats in Pakistan’s directly elected legislatures were reserved for women, a pattern has emerged of women legislators performing better than their male counterparts in the national parliament and the provincial legislatures over the last 13 years.
This May, when the current National Assembly completed its third parliamentary year and its performance statistics were compiled, it emerged that the relatively lesser known women parliamentarians dominated, leaving behind a large number of their more senior male colleagues in almost all aspects of parliamentary performance.
JUI-F MNA Naeema Kishwar Khan topped in attendance at plenary sessions by achieving a near-perfect 99pc attendance rate. She also asked the highest number of questions (134) during the year. According to a Pildat report, MNA Khan gave the best all-round performance in the National Assembly for the year; overall, nine women MNAs figured among the top 10 positions. The women MNAs included in the top performers’ list belong to almost all major political parties in the Assembly, including the MQM, the Jamaat, PPP, PML-N and PTI.
Pakistani women on reserved seats have turned in a sterling performance in parliament.
Recently, a joint session of parliament passed two landmark pieces of legislation: the Anti-Honour Killing Laws (Criminal Amendment Bill) and the Anti-Rape Laws (Criminal Amendment Bill). These bills were originally piloted by former PPP senator Syeda Sughra Imam. The PPP’s Sherry Rehman, meanwhile, has introduced a number of bills and authored the Right to Information bill meant to replace the current Freedom of Information Ordinance, 2002 during her term as MNA. A bill was introduced by her in the Senate proposing to annul the election process wherever women cast less than 10pc of the vote.
There are people who argue that women MNAs and MPAs who returned to legislatures on reserved seats do not have specific constituencies like their colleagues elected on the general seats; they do not have to cater to the demands of their constituencies and, therefore, have more time to attend to business in the legislatures. This argument may be valid to an extent but one should not forget that, in general and especially in a society like ours, women shoulder far more responsibilities at home than men. Their performance becomes all the more praiseworthy when one sees that woman legislators, generally speaking, have had far less exposure and experience of political and parliamentary practices than their male colleagues.
The practice of reserved seats for women has been a subject of debate not only in Pakistan but around the world. A general and more global consensus, however, seems to have evolved: women’s representation in the legislatures of historically male-dominated societies is extremely difficult, if not outright impossible, without some kind of affirmative action.
India — even though it has 33-50pc (the percentage ranges from state to state) reserved seats for women in local governments — has not yet been able to develop a consensus for reserving seats for women in the legislatures. Many efforts have been made in the recent past to pass a bill to this effect in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house. But these efforts have remained inconclusive, with major differences persisting on the mode of electing women to the reserved seats.
Many in India argue for reserving a percentage of the constituencies of the Lok Sabha (the lower house) and the state legislative assemblies for women, where they can contest the election. A similar system is already being practised, fairly successfully, in the case of reserved seats for the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes in the Lok Sabha. During an election, a fixed number of Lok Sabha constituencies are declared open for election only among the candidates of the scheduled castes or scheduled tribes, irrespective of gender. These constituencies keep rotating from election to election so that no constituency is subjected to this somewhat restricted candidacy on a permanent basis.
The advantage of this system is that members who are elected on reserved seats experience the rigours of electioneering in exactly the same way as those who contest in elections on general seats. While candidacy is restricted, all the voters in the reserved constituency vote in exactly the same manner as in a regular constituency. Pakistan may study and adopt a similar system for the election of women and even religious minorities against their reserved seats. But is there a need for changing the prevailing system of electing women legislators against the reserved seats in Pakistan?
Pakistan currently follows a somewhat distorted model of proportional representation for the election of women and religious minority legislators against their reserved seats. In a classical proportional representation system, seats are allocated to a party in direct proportion to the votes polled in the election. However, in Pakistan, we allocate the number of reserved seats to a party in proportion to general seats won — not votes polled — by the party in the general election. This system suffers from several problems.
Firstly, members elected on general seats and parties’ leaderships generally tend to discriminate against members elected on reserved seats as if they are some kind of ‘lesser’ members. In some legislatures, women legislators elected on the reserved seats are not even allocated a development fund, which the directly elected members receive, irrespective of the desirability of the practice.
Secondly, members elected on reserved seats are absolutely dependent on the whims of their party’s leadership as they are the ones who appoint them rather than them being voted in. Finally, members elected on reserved seats are deprived of a normal political and electoral process in which they get to reach out to the people.
While we should celebrate the excellent performance of our women legislators, we ought to think of new ways to improve the system of election to reserved seats.
The writer is the president of Pildat, a Pakistani public policy think tank.
Published in Dawn, November 7th, 2016