The 2002 parliament was a revolutionary in terms of the presence of women in the legislature. There were a total of 73 women in the National Assembly, out of which 60 came on women’s reserved seats, 12 were directly elected on general seats, while one woman was returned on minorities’ seats. Nearly 17 percent seats were reserved for women in Senate as well as provincial assemblies. This time the situation is even more encouraging. Fifteen women have won election on general seats this time. The Election Commission will shortly announce decision on the 60 reserved seats on the basis of the seats won by each party in the National Assembly. Political parties have already submitted the list of their nominations on women’s seats in order of priority. Several women who won elections on general seat were contacted to get their views on the changing pattern of women’s participation in elections and its prospects.
Although there is a section of opinion which argues that women who are not elected directly from constituencies by the people have only a cosmetic presence and are incapable of playing any significant role in the legislative process or for the rights of women. There is truth in this assertion, as is testified by a member of the National Assembly who was elected on a reserved seat in 2002, but the counter-argument is that in a highly conservative society where social dictates tend to confine women’s role in the house only, it is through measures like this that they will be encouraged to participate in political decision-making. This is precisely what Tehmina Daultan argued.
She said that the presence of a large number of women in the National Assembly on reserved seats is a very positive development. “I personally feel it has encouraged many women to contest elections on general seats.” Tehmina Daultana, one of the six vice-presidents of PML (N), was first elected to the National Assembly in 1993 from NA 169, Vehari-III, and became one of the four women, including Benazir and Nusrat Bhutto, in the National Assembly. She won this seat again in 1997 elections, which returned six women to the National Assembly. Tehmina feels that it is important that women get representation because laws are made for all citizens, of which 50 percent are women. But she felt that if a woman wants to join politics, she had to work doubly hard. She has to run her house as well as negotiate her way in a male-dominated power structure and prove her worth. She too believed women’s participation in politics was curtailed by their economic dependence. Politics is a full time job and also requires an election hopeful to be economically sound.
Samina Khalid Ghurki, who has been elected on NA 130, was of the view that contesting on a general seat is really tough. “In addition to the support of the party, women need support from the entire family, which has to work as a team. Then there is the issue of expenditure. Contesting an election in this country costs a lot of money. Reserving seats for women helps to overcome these hurdles and bring those women to the legislature, who have been affiliated with the party but do not have the wherewithal to contest elections.” Samina defeated another woman candidate Sadia Shabir who was contesting on the ticket of PML (N).
Samina Khalid Ghurki is correct to note that without family support women cannot run their election campaign. In reality, several women got a chance to enter politics when their male relatives were barred from running for election due to graduation condition. Samina herself was propelled into politics due to this very reason, because her husband did not meet this condition. Likewise, Hina Rabbani Khar was fielded as a candidate when her father Noor Rabbani Khar, an influential of the area and previous MNA, could not stand due to graduation condition. Saima Akhtar Bharwana is another example, who was fielded on a general seat when her father, Akhtar Bharwana, could not fulfill the graduation condition. In most areas, women’s campaign was run by their party and male family members. Even the election posters did not carry the pictures of the candidate herself but that of the father or husband.
Fauzia Wahab, Central Coordinator of PPP’s Human Rights Cell, emphasised that most women elected on direct elections are not career politicians and are young and inexperienced. Fauzia is a candidate of PPP on women’s reserved seats and was also elected an MNA in 2002. In fact, one news report in a national daily carried a headline, “Public-shy women win Toba bout”.
The report said Begum Farkhanda Amjad Warraich of PML-Q, running for NA-92, Gojra, and Begum Nazia Raheel of PML-N from PP-88, Kamalia, never joined the election campaign. However, we must not ignore the large number of women who may not have won, but stood for elections. This time, 64 women contested for the National Assembly, 33 as independent candidates, while a total of 116 women stood for the four provincial assemblies, with an overwhelming majority (81) as independent candidates. This is certainly an indicator, as Tehmina Daultana suggested, that many women have been encouraged to enter this profession as career politicians.
Fauzia Wahab pointed out several other positive aspects of women’s large presence in decision-making bodies. She said that this has helped bring women into mainstream politics. “They got important positions within the party. For instance, three women are serving as information secretaries in the PPP, one federal and two provincial.” In Fauzia’s view, the large public presence of women had helped in bringing down instances of women-specific crimes and improved their profile as capable of serious jobs. For the first time, a woman was appointed as Governor of State Bank of Pakistan on merit. “This was the imperceptible impact of women’s presence in the legislature and not due to any action taken in this regard.” Fauzia feels the most important task before the new government regarding the rights of women is their economic empowerment. “We want to enhance the quota of women in both public and private sector upto 20 percent. After the establishment of First Women Bank in 1988, many women have become successful entrepreneurs. More women need to be encouraged to become economically independent.”
Most women legislators elected on general seats feel they represent both men and women. Tehmina Daultana said her focus is not gender-specific. She would fight for the rights of the disempowered, both men and women. However, being a woman she is more accessible to women, who come to her office without hesitation and share all kinds of problem. “If there is some issue concerning a woman, I feel it more acutely and have always taken a firm stand,” she said. “But men don’t feel uncomfortable either in interacting with me because as an elected representative, one tends to lose one’s gender and is looked upon as a person.”
When Samina Ghurki was asked if women in parliament should work across party lines to work for the cause of women, she said that earlier her party was in opposition and its efforts to introduce women-specific legislation did not meet success. However, the PPP supported the passage of Women’s Protection Act 2007, which was introduced by the ruling party. “The new government will be a broad-based coalition and women will have the opportunity to work across party lines on the many issues concerning them. In some areas, women have not been allowed to vote, at others they are the victims of various customs. Our party will support legislation for improving the status of women.”
On the issue of reserved seats for women, Dr. Firdaus Ashiq Awan gave an interesting perspective, which testified to the problems indirectly elected women face. Dr. Firdaus was elected on a reserved seat in 2002 on the nomination of PML (Q). She said that the party did not give them a political identity. Indirectly elected women are expected to be grateful to party officials who nominated them. Bureaucrats’ attitude is also very discouraging. She said, “My proposals for the development of my area could not materialise because the party leadership listened to the directly-elected MNA and MPAs of my areas.” She said that she faced the tough decision of choosing between the label of an MNA and real power through the people’s vote. “This prompted me to join the PPP to be able to fulfill my agenda. I faced great difficulties, but in the end I was successful due to the people’s support.” Dr. Firdaus won election from NA 111 Bajwat-Sialkot, beating the outgoing speaker National Assembly, Chaudhry Amir Hussain.
Her top priorities are protection of working women from harassment at workplace; ensuring that women get their due share in property with dignity; career counselling and employment generation for youth and safe delivery and ante- and post-natal care for every woman. Asked if women legislator can work to develop a women’s caucus in the assembly, she said: “This is a good idea. But at the moment women legislator are not confident of their political standing and identity and cannot act independently. They are beholden to the male members of their respective parties. Hopefully, they will gain confidence with time and we see this idea materialising.” Fauzia Wahab agrees to this view that the idea of a women’s caucus is premature at the moment.