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December 19, 2012

Tipped to unite the status-quo parties, Imran Khan has already brought female parliamentarians of all hues on a single platform. On Monday, they joined voices to condemn a statement by the PTI chief in which he opposed reserved seats for women in the assemblies. Mr Khan’s argument was that the women who entered the assemblies on these seats were not directly elected. Though he did subsequently suggest that some sort of system should be developed to elect rather than nominate female lawmakers to reserved seats, his earlier comment raised concerns about his intentions regarding the support that women still need in Pakistan to ensure that they are adequately represented in parliament.

Despite Mr Khan’s qualifications of this comment, the female legislators’ alarm about it was understandable, the result of a genuine concern about any potential changes to the system that might impact women’s representation. Reserved seats are an unfortunate necessity, the continuing need for them a grim reminder of how the group the quota seeks to benefit is still being denied equal opportunities in politics. In an ideal world the most promising candidates would be allowed to represent their parties, contesting against all other candidates regardless of their gender or religion. But Pakistan has not yet provided girls and women with the opportunities that would allow them to enter the public sphere, and especially politics, as equal participants. Mr Khan is right in wishing for a more active role for women in politics. But until that day arrives, there will have to be systems in place to ensure that women’s voices are heard in parliament, particularly to represent a section of the population whose needs are routinely overlooked; the legislative work that has been done during this administration and the last to protect women’s rights is testament to that. Since Mr Khan is in the process of learning the nitty-gritty of the system, he would do well to be more conscious of the struggles Pakistani women face in his future comments on their role in society.