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.