RECENTLY, it was reported that women were barred from voting in the Lower Dir by-election held earlier this month. It was not the first time, however, that this has happened, nor is it limited to Dir alone. More importantly, the oft reported phenomenon of women’s deliberate exclusion from participating in elections is only the tip of the iceberg. The issue that underpins it women in politics seldom finds place in our political discourse.
Democracies across the world have struggled to ensure equal participation of women. Although the success rate has understandably not been uniform, Pakistan seems to be going in reverse gear.
Consider, for example, the fact that whereas there were 77.8 women voters compared with 100 men in the first general elections of 1970 in the then Western provinces (present-day Pakistan), their ratio of participation in elections held almost half a century later, in 2013, actually slipped a notch to 77.4!
In Pakistan’s political arena, women are acceptable only as proxies or an extension of male politicians.
If these two, almost equal figures, are viewed in the specific socio-political context of the years in question (such as level of urbanisation, literacy, etc), they don’t represent a standstill. They in fact stand witness to our regression.
The debate on women’s participation in politics in Pakistan has largely remained confined to reserving seats for them. The 1973 Constitution reserved 10 seats in the National Assembly for women with the general seat members serving as their electoral college. The reservation was made for three general elections or ten years, whichever came later. The reason for this time bar was that it was hoped that within that span of time, women would arrive at par with men in politics, thus negating the need for special provisions. The optimism, however, proved to be misplaced. Although Gen Zia doubled the number of women’s seats, he did not extend the time bar. The seats thus expired after the 1988 elections and the next three parliaments were without women’s seats.
Gen Musharraf proved more generous than his predecessor and increased the number of women’s seats in the National Assembly to an impressive 60, and likewise in the provincial assemblies. He did not put an expiry date on these either. Three elections have been held under this system so far and together they constitute a substantial body of experience, enough to evaluate whether it has brought us any closer to the objective of gender equality in the political sphere.
The answer is not difficult to find. It is written all over our politics. The reserved seats have only helped political patriarchs increase their numerical strength in the houses. They see them as a bonus, the awarding of which is monopolised by the party heads under the party-list system. Members may grumble over this monopoly but they do not disagree that only women belonging to the political elite should come on the reserved seats.
Earlier this year, Balochistan Assembly speaker Jan Mohammed Jamali (PML-N) refused to withdraw his daughter’s name in favour of his party’s chosen candidate in the Senate election.
The case of Sindh MPA, Parveen Junejo, is even more telling. She was elected from a general seat in Dadu as a proxy for her husband who was barred from contesting for legal reasons, but after the couple became estranged, Ms Junejo claimed she was forced to resign her seat. Her party and the Sindh Assembly, in the manner of a tribal jirga, promptly completed the procedure required to unseat her.
Equality of women in politics is not on any party’s agenda. They are content with flaunting their few women leaders as evidence of their progressive politics. In practical electoral terms, it is much easier for them to take women’s votes as multipliers of male consent. They are then left with the task of managing only the local-level male powerbrokers.
On the other hand, the parliamentary status of women on reserved seats remains completely dependent on their male colleagues even if they outperform the men on the floor of the house. Women are acceptable only as proxies or an extension of male politicians.
The present electoral system and the politics it is generating have become a vehicle for reinforcing the gender status quo, instead of being a tool to challenge and change it. There is a reason why even the parties that are against women in the political sphere, including Jamaat-i-Islami which spearheaded their exclusion from the Lower Dir by-election, happily nominate women candidates on reserved seats.
In hindsight, it seems the present system was designed only to play with the optics of women’s participation. It has effected a complete disconnect between the image and the reality on the ground. While we have a considerable number of women in parliament, womenfolk can still be barred from getting registered as voters and from casting their ballots.
If the increased presence of women was intended to have a trickle-down effect, let us admit that it simply hasn’t happened and there are no signs it can ever do so. This is not to say that ensuring and increasing women’s participation in politics is impossible. One way can be for women to have a double vote, with one vote for the general seat candidate and another for the women’s seat. A single voter casting multiple ballots for different categories of candidates, including women, minorities, etc was tried out in local government elections of 2000 and 2005. Another method could be to make it mandatory for a winner to have secured men and women’s votes in a fixed proportion. Yet another option can be to assign women’s votes an additional fractional weightage while consolidating results.
The point here, however, is not to propose a particular method but to stress that unless the electoral system puts an additional value on the votes of common womenfolk and incentivises their participation, women’s equality or even their increased participation will remain a distant dream. The writer works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group.