Hands off the reserved seats for women, please

Published: December 18, 2012

The writer is an author, most recently of Slum Child (2010). She has written for numerous publications including Dawn, The Friday Times and Chowk

According to a report in this newspaper, Imran Khan recently said that he opposes the way women in Pakistan enter the National Assembly on reserved seats. At a seminar called ‘Justice for Women’ held by the PTI, Khan said that women should not be ‘nominated from a list’ for those seats, but should ‘contest direct elections’ for them the way the rest of the seats are contested for in the Assembly.

Currently, there are 70 reserved seats in the National Assembly, 60 for women and 10 for minorities. A woman or a religious minority can fight an election for any other seat but these seats are allocated to political parties based on proportional representation, meaning that the largest party gets the largest number of seats, and so on. A woman does not have to be directly elected to hold one of these seats; she is assigned a seat after her party holds an election to select her for it.

Imran Khan says he wants to do away with this indirect system and make the women fight for the reserved seats directly like everyone else has to do for the general Assembly seats. This is the way forward to a more democratic system, says Khan. He says: “How can some women be representatives of women when they haven’t even contested elections? In some areas it is not possible for women to contest elections.”

If it is true that in some areas, it is not possible for women to contest elections in general, how will they contest direct elections for reserved seats? This is a highly impractical, if not downright contradictory, stance. Most women will not be able to afford an expensive election campaign. There will be a complete failure to find enough women willing to contest all these elections throughout the country, especially in the more conservative areas of Pakistan. There is even danger that these seats may eventually be taken off the reserved list if there aren’t enough women willing to fight direct elections, and reverted to men.

The problem is that women in Pakistan are nowhere near achieving the equal status that is required for being able to participate in large numbers in direct elections. Our society and customs discourage women from appearing in public, from campaigning, from going door to door and meeting their voters. They can’t imagine doing this for all the general seats of the Assembly; they can’t even imagine being able to do this for the 60 reserved seats for women.

Reserved seats for women are still, sadly, a political necessity in Pakistan. Marvi Sirmed, Pakistani activist for women’s rights, says: “It is such a shame that even ‘educated’ people are discussing whether reserved seats should be there or not. That points to a serious lack of knowledge and insight into why women of Pakistan have been striving for these seats for decades. The fact that farmer and peasant women are not represented in parliament should not be used as pretext to scrap these seats. We also don’t have farmer and peasant men, so should we scrap men’s seats, too?  That the nominations are given to the influential women is also a myth.”

Indeed, the reserved seats system may have become a way for women to be inserted into the political scenario as ‘placeholders’, as people so cynically put it. But the reserved seat system serves as a way of getting women in greater numbers into the Assembly. This affirmative action for women in itself is empowering and visionary, and a great example for all the people of Pakistan. To destabilise this system at the moment by exchanging indirect nomination for direct elections to these reserved seats would be setting women back many, many decades.

Sirmed outlines the difficulties in bringing women into the election process: “Not many Pakistani parties are willing to give tickets to women from winnable seats. That’s why we raised the issue before the Election Commission that at least 20 per cent tickets should be given to women candidates. The Election Commission agreed to make it 10 per cent tickets and include it in the Political Representation Act that governs political parties. But the political parties (the right-wing parties, Q-League, PTI, PML-N, JUI-F, etc.) did not even agree to 10 per cent.”

When we have come much closer to our goal of equality for women in Pakistan, equal rights as citizens, with justice and concern and empathy for our struggles and our obstacles, then perhaps we will be ready to take the step of having women contest directly for reserved seats. But for now, forcing an already tiny pool of qualified women to compete against one another for a small number of seats will damage the gains that women are making in our fragile democracy.

It’s certainly reasonable to place greater scrutiny on the women in the reserved seats to ensure that they are qualified and actually serving as they are meant to, not just enjoying perks or furthering the individual needs of their family members. But this is a problem that all Assembly members and ministers and army chiefs and elected officials and bureaucrats have contributed to for the last 60-odd years of Pakistan’s existence.

Meanwhile, it’s time to instead start thinking about the second generation of affirmative action in Pakistan’s parliaments and the modalities of how to achieve this. This will have to include direct elections on reserved seats while expanding constituencies for women candidates. But we must always protect the tradition of reserved seats for women and never, ever eliminate them, or else this will drive us back to pre-1973 conditions (Imran Khan had to later issue a clarification that he never meant reserved seats should be abolished altogether).

Still, with elections just around the corner, now is hardly the time to cause confusion about reserved seats for women. Pakistan’s women have fought long and hard for inclusion in the political process; their decades of struggle should never be downplayed or declared invalid by any politician. Any reforms of these very delicate, still nascent processes for women’s empowerment must be debated and weighed carefully, not bandied about as promises during anyone’s election campaign. And women parliamentarians, past and present, on regular and reserved seats, must be consulted; they are the only ones that know what kind of support women truly need to make it in the male-dominated world of Pakistani politics.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 19th, 2012.

Reader Comments (42)

  • Dec 18, 2012 - 11:41PM

    I.K Said it Right … You will see chosen one’s not elected ones !! Enjoying Luxuries and Nimko during sessions !! [Yes I have seen that photo ] .

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  • Liberal
    Dec 18, 2012 - 11:42PM

    If u think that kashmala tariq, marvi memon, shazia mari, are true representative for women then… hats off to u …. all of the reserved MNA’s MPA’s r either relatives of already sitting MNA’s MPA’s or have worked with a MNA MPA or party leader is some capacity .. none of them represent middle or lower middle class …

    remember musharraf’s local body elections? there were reserve seats for women councillors but they were elected seats .. there were extra ballot paper for women councillor …

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  • mian khaliq
    Dec 18, 2012 - 11:51PM

    PTI zindabad

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  • Sarah
    Dec 19, 2012 - 12:11AM

    The other politicians and party leaders are an epitome of political inadequacies, intellectual bankruptcy and ideological flaws in themselves, but this man makes an innocuous statement and the world opens fire on him.

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  • Tahir
    Dec 19, 2012 - 12:14AM

    Equal rights for women but they won’t share responsibility and expenses…what a pathetic argument is this!
    Tell me a single women on reserved seats who has made us proud? None…we just have Kashamala, Marvi and many others like them and we know what was criteria behind their selection…In Pakistan you talk of merit, the status quo would start grilling you….Too pathetic

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  • Dec 19, 2012 - 12:14AM

    In democracy anything that you do should be democratic. Reserved seats for women and minorities are UNDEMOCRATIC and abhorrent. There are 6% Muslims in USA and even more in UK. Do they have reserved seats for Muslims? In Pakistan everyone wants FREE lunch. The writer simply has an irrational logic. Currently most of the women in the assembly are either sisters, daughters, daughter-in-laws, or very close relatives of influential parliamentarians. They just sit there warming the seat and contribute nothing. Let women be awarded tickets by the parties to contest on general seats.

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  • Asad Faizi
    Dec 19, 2012 - 12:21AM

    Quotas and entitlements have never raised the lot of any community, gender or segment of society. Look at the make up and mix of those 60 women parliamentarians today and tell me a single name who came from the masses. Every single women has been nominated by the party leaders on the basis of their personal relationships. It has proved to be the way to promote the kith and kin of the political elite in Pakistan.

    What Imran Khan proposed makes a lot of sense. He is not proposing to completely do away with women seats. He is proposing that there should be contest for these women seats. This is a win/win solution. It reinforces the affirmative action to bring women more and more in politics, and it assures that true representatives of the women go to the parliament. More democracy does not hurt – it only makes things better.

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  • Dec 19, 2012 - 12:38AM

    6,500 tribal women get back their right to vote

    Because of PTI party member efforts..

    http://tribune.com.pk/story/474332/jirga-decision-6500-tribal-women-get-back-their-right-to-vote/

    PTi4Women.Recommend

  • Falcon
    Dec 19, 2012 - 12:53AM

    So you mention yourself…”Imran Khan had to later issue a clarification that he never meant reserved seats should be abolished altogether”…but you end up writing the whole article using this as a background…confused much? Secondly, you have mentioned too many quotes from Marvi Sirmed, without providing sources of where has she drawn her conclusions from (For example: right wing political parties including PTI didn’t agree to even 10% reserved seats for women, what is the source of this news)?

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  • Falcon
    Dec 19, 2012 - 1:02AM

    And one more thing, as per IK’s statement in cases where it is not possible to hold full-fledged election campaign, at least some democratic process should be followed for electing women. Expecting fairness in nominations in a patronage dominated society is unrealistic. The only way to add some fairness to it is through election (even if only three people are involved in the election process). Isn’t this what democracy is all about?

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  • shehryar
    Dec 19, 2012 - 1:47AM

    What an idiotic logic from the author. If she can tell us that crom the time reserved seats have been alloter, is there even a minor improvement in women rights?

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  • Mirza
    Dec 19, 2012 - 3:58AM

    To be fair Pakistan should have more seats for women no matter whether they are directly elected or indirectly. As far as women members being elite so was Mr. Jinnah and his sister who could not even speak any Pakistani language even during the 1964 election campaign. We can decide the mode of elections but the seats must increase.
    Some men have no respect for women of their own country. I have seen many come to the West live as playboys and treat Pakistani women as inferior. Pakistan and its people have donated so much for IK but what kind of work he has done for Pakistani women? Looks like for some men no Pakistani woman is good enough. I am not naming names, if the shoe fits wear it!

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  • Kasim butt
    Dec 19, 2012 - 4:21AM

    This is very twisted logic presented by the author. Where is the contradiction in Imran’s proposal as you opined. If women are contesting against each other then what is the problem with that. Would not this be a fairer reflection of the political parties’ strength and popularity? This is an article just for the sake if criticism and devoid of logic to put it politely.

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  • rizwan
    Dec 19, 2012 - 5:34AM

    Oh really Bina BB you were left to write weren’t you? i need career bost lets bash IK

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  • GS@Y
    Dec 19, 2012 - 6:43AM

    Actually I don’t think it’s such a bad idea to have ONLY women contest elections for those seats. The seats should remain, but this nominating thing is used as a means of patronage. Every Pakistani woman should have the chance to reach the seats reserved for their gender in the parliament.

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  • Mohsin Raza
    Dec 19, 2012 - 8:59AM

    An article based on Vocabulary and assumptions than facts and knowledge. These days, all they have to do is to sit on their desktops, hear the headlines, then ponder and utter, ponder and utter, ponder and utter; and this makes their article! No stats, no facts, mere spoken English.

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  • Haroon
    Dec 19, 2012 - 9:42AM

    All women nominated through these reserved seats are relative of some MNA or some influential. How can we call it democratic? Reserved seats for woman should be given through some mechanism of elections. Sorry but I totally disagree with the writers views here and I have to agree to PTI’s point of view.

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  • wonderer
    Dec 19, 2012 - 10:13AM

    There is another reason why women should have no reserved seats. What about those women who are being targeted daily by drones? Are there any reserved seats for them?

    I am surprised no one has raised this issue. Why were they do much quicker when it was the matter of Nobel for Malala?

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  • The K
    Dec 19, 2012 - 10:21AM

    The problem with you”the status quo” people is that your listening power is weak, comprehension powers are next to nil and speaking powers are sky high. You failed to understand the point of Captain that he wanted a fair representation of women in the parliament. You think Kashmala Tariq, Raheela Khadim Hussain and other Big Wigs are true representatives of poor women in Pakistan???…Thats why the bills relating to women rights failed to get through even after 5 years of this lame democracy.
    Women should contest elections reserved for women candidates only. If you call for equality of both genders, then why crying for elections of women???….

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  • toticalling
    Dec 19, 2012 - 10:36AM

    I am for women getting power sharing, but the idea of reserved seats is not the ultimate solution. One way would be to have women contesting elections against women only. Certain seats should be fought only by women against each other. In my opinions, it is more imoprtant to allocate women % in all jobs available in the market, including governmenmt jobs and working in stores on the high street. That will give them real power, not only purchasing poweers but at home with their hubbies.

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  • Ahmad
    Dec 19, 2012 - 10:49AM

    We agree with Imran Khan. We dont have selection we want election on reserve seats

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  • Lahori
    Dec 19, 2012 - 11:10AM

    I never expected Bina not to complete her research before writing this article.

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  • Jasim
    Dec 19, 2012 - 11:26AM

    reserved Democracy!! where else ??
    i knew many poltitician friend’s who’s aunts etc have been nominated for reserved seats, and little they do for their constituency or politics, but Bareeze’ get it sales through them…

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  • Faiz
    Dec 19, 2012 - 12:15PM

    I am sorry but the author should gauge by the comments that her article is pretty worthless. I am not a supporter of IK and even I can say that he didn’t mean removing reserve seats, last night he clarified it further on TV he wanted candidates to be elected within the party before being nominated on the reserve seats not because they are relatives of someone already in parliament. This would ensure the people from the grassroots level could have a fair chance. Women in Pakistan should not use this as an excuse, you’ve had a woman prime minister before much of the western world could even imagine it possible regardless of how rich she was more men voted for her than did women so we’re past the phase of acceptability at least the generation before us has proved that to us.

    Don’t even get me started on equality half of the jobs that end up in my mailbox are for females only. Leave alone the amount of seats women waste when they enter university to later become a housewife.

    The women that truly have it bad are in the rural areas and that is exactly the kind of woman who should be given a chance, not the rich kind that is already prevalent.

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  • Arifq
    Dec 19, 2012 - 12:31PM

    Not to worry dear writer, Khan Sahib has no seats of his own how can he change anything!

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  • Parvez
    Dec 19, 2012 - 2:15PM

    I.K’s concept of reinventing the wheel is wrong. The need of the hour is to ensure that the wheel turns………….something that has not happened in quite some time.
    If one takes the argument further the question to be asked is how effective is the National Assembly and how expensive is this institution ? The short answers are – ineffective and very expensive. So why is this charade being foisted on the people ? Just to show that democracy is alive. Who are we fooling except ourselves.

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  • Dec 19, 2012 - 2:26PM

    Theres a lot of words here… none of them explain exactly why women cannot compete against other women?
    If the seats are reserved for women then political parties will have to field women candidates… am i missing something?

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  • arslan
    Dec 19, 2012 - 2:50PM

    oh come on, in which way you have taken the statement? Current setup is a mimicry of women rights in seat proportion.

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  • SoniaK
    Dec 19, 2012 - 3:47PM

    :) You yourself lament that women are in no way EQUAL to men in Pakistan- if someone is giving you a CHANCE to be equal and asking these same feudal women(they have a lot of money- and time is just lying about) to prove their mettle in the political arena, you somehow crop up so many problems- sounds like you almost started crying coz suddenly there were so many hurdles for women!! I ask you why??? Why do you have so many reasons against it??

    For the educated lot and the not so fortunate- is there anyone woman like that??? maybe in PTI- but most politicians have the dough for the campaigning!!! Please don’t make up that reason!

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  • Asif
    Dec 19, 2012 - 4:12PM

    Probably bina shah has been promised a reserved seat in the forthcoming election by one of the elitist party, this is why she is making so much fuss of all this,:D

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  • Razi
    Dec 19, 2012 - 4:14PM

    Kamaal ho gayi hai! The writer is herself explaining that IK is not against reserved seats he is in favor of implementing a better methodology to promote truer representation on them. So in easy words, the seats still remain reserved for women (No one’s taking them away) but women have to get themselves elected while competing against other women (Not men)!

    If his suggestion for improving the method of election ‘on the reserved seats for women‘ is not practical at this time in our culture, then suggest a better way. Whats the point of going all ballistic about it ?

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  • SurelySure!!
    Dec 19, 2012 - 5:21PM

    I agree with author. she is right about Women representation.

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  • junaid
    Dec 19, 2012 - 5:33PM

    “Most women will not be able to afford an expensive election campaign” Wrong, The women sitting in the parliament definitely have money. If they can afford Hermes Birkin, they can certainly afford few posters and political gatherings.

    Marvi sirmed: blah blah blah.… “That the nominations are given to the influential women is also a myth” Wrong again, all of them belong to influential families.
    Marci Sirmed…blah blah blah…. “the right-wing parties, Q-League, PTI, PML-N, JUI-F, etc. did not even agree to 10 per cent.” PTI ?? really ? When?

    “This will have to include direct elections on reserved seats while expanding constituencies for women candidates”. Here you are saying exactly what IK said, what a waste of time writing an article.

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  • Uza Syed
    Dec 19, 2012 - 7:21PM

    Imran Khan said what he thinks and that he is against women being anywhere close to anything beyond the ‘Chaar Dewari’ and “Chaddar” is not tolerable. Women must do or be forced to do what gods made them for which is please the ‘momins’ anytime the momin wishes and needs and orders and ‘bachcha de’ as a consequence of momins actions in service of religion. Thank God he is not as clever as he wishes to portray himself and his mind shows throw his utterings. Women must beware, here is a wolf under the hide of a lamb.

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  • Mountie
    Dec 19, 2012 - 7:56PM

    I am not a PTi fan and neither do I agree with gazillion things IK says but I think his words were taken out of context. As the Mari’s, Khars and Meimon dont represent woman of Pakistan but so doesnt the Chaudri’s or the Bhuttos represnt the men of Pakistan.

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  • Truth Detector
    Dec 19, 2012 - 9:44PM

    Pakistan and its people have donated
    so much for IK but what kind of work
    he has done for Pakistani women?

    @Mirza,
    What a pathetic argument!! Does SKMT not treat women? Are Women not allowed to study in NUML? This is the bottom line for Anti-IK crowd, they have to dump on him no matter what!!

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  • Asad
    Dec 19, 2012 - 9:51PM

    Humayun Akhtar Khan full endorses Kashmala’s reserve seat.

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  • Dec 19, 2012 - 10:17PM

    Normally reserved seats mean that the candidates from reserved category only can contest in that constituencies. Hence after the election a women candidate only will be winner and will be better representative. In the existing system there is full room for nepotism and that is the fact. . I am sure for the sixty reserved seats ample candidates will be available . Parties will be compelled to provide the platform to women .
    when you win on your personality and efforts it enhances the inner strength to protect the women’s right .

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  • Sultan
    Dec 19, 2012 - 10:51PM

    I think every powerful man in Pakistan has a right to nominate his relatives to the reserved seats for women. After all, what do the village women know about Birkin bags and L’Oreal make-up kits? This Imran guy is such a PITA–he always says things that are so unpatriotic. Who needs elections when we, the begums of Pakistan, can do the assembly tamasha without one?

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  • Dec 19, 2012 - 11:57PM

    Reserved seats is simply a golden chain of Feudalism to strangle poor women.

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  • Manoj Joshi India
    Dec 21, 2012 - 12:26PM

    Reservation as an issue in the long run becomes a pain to handle. Reservations whether on the basis of caste, religion, sex or any other parameter should be carried out in an abstemious manner. Using reservation as a political tool is what damages its very spirit. Seat reservation for women is required provided the women elected genuinely work towards the upliftment and empowerment of women and not remain simply ‘political dolls’ meant only for display. Pakistan needs women empowerment as well as the religious minorities too need to be given a chance to grow however this entire exercise should be carried out with the real spirit and not a mere political drama.

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  • Akhter
    Dec 21, 2012 - 7:48PM

    I am no supporter of Imran Khan but fully agree that the current crop of reserved seat entree’s are in no way representative of the population, they are all sister’s/daughters/wifes of MNA/MPA’s and are not based on Merit!, They enjoy all the perks and do little for the emancipation of the common woman ( who i expect these Pseudo politician’s would not recognize if they came face to face with one).

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