In defence of reserved seats for women

Published: December 20, 2012
The writer is director of the Department of Gender Studies at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad

The writer is director of the Department of Gender Studies at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad

The debate on the question of a gender quota in parliament seems to be highly misunderstood in Pakistan. The recent statement by Imran Khan at a seminar on “Justice for Women of Pakistan”in Lahore where he opposed reserved seats for women has created a stir, especially among the women’s rights community.

The PTI chief has managed to create quite a lot of confusion by making a highly conflated statement. His team is now trying to do damage control — as it always does — by explaining what he really meant. While his concern on whether those female MNAs on reserved seats were true representatives of the electorate is legitimate, his opposition to gender quota in the same breath showed his lack of understanding of the issue. Instead of suggesting corrective measures to the indirect way in which reserved seats work, he threw out the baby with the bath water by opposing the gender quota altogether. It seems that the PTI chief is not aware of the history of discrimination against women in Pakistan, or perhaps he thinks that this is an issue that is of interest only to women — and hence, why bother.

What we need to understand is that women’s exclusion from the formal arena of politics is a centuries-old global phenomenon. Despite several human rights bills that obligate the international community to ensure gender equality in all spheres of life, the representation of women in parliaments worldwide is only 19.6 per cent. This means that patriarchal sociocultural, economic and political structures hinder women’s equal participation in mainstream politics not just in Pakistan but in the developed world as well. It is because of this and the long history of keeping women out of politics that countries like Pakistan have a quota for women in parliament — as part of a strategy to bridge the yawning gender gap in public representation. The fact is that around half of the countries of the world use some type of quota (constitutional, electoral or voluntary) for their parliaments.

We know that women cannot be lumped together in a unitary category. Class, ethnicity, religion and other social divisions divide them. They do not necessarily have common interests. Women’s concerns can be represented by anyone who has a gender perspective irrespective of his/her own gender (although research shows that women are more likely to legislate on social issues). There is a powerful utility argument in favour of gender quota; however, I will take a simpler route — that of justice in defence of a gender quota.

Women constitute nearly half the population. They contribute more than men to the development of the country through their triple roles in the productive, reproductive and community management roles in society.

Imran Khan must understand that women’s formal involvement in politics does not automatically lead to their substantive representation. Rather, their ability to effectively perform and represent women’s interests depends on the larger context of democracy; how they enter the political arena and to whom they are accountable. The PTI is absolutely correct in suggesting that political parties should hold elections within their ranks and promote women into higher leadership positions. However, he should not forget that political parties in this patriarchal socio-economic set-up and as gatekeepers have deprived women in general, and female party workers in particular, for the last 65 years from attaining decision-making positions.

There is hardly any women’s representation in the central committees or the decision-making structures of Pakistan’s mainstream political parties — and the PTI is not very different in this regard. It has been a long-standing demand of women’s rights organisations that the Political Parties Act be amended to require all political parties to set aside a 33 per cent quota for women in party offices, leadership positions as well as in election tickets. What we need to do is increase the gender quota for women in the National and provincial assemblies from its current 17 per cent to 33 per cent. Furthermore, elections to these seats should be held directly. In addition, political parties should be required to give at least 20 per cent of all party posts and tickets to women.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 21st, 2012.

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Reader Comments (20)

  • sensible
    Dec 20, 2012 - 10:36PM

    I was expected this from you Miss. Tell me how many women in current assembly ” on reserved seats” are on merit. I am sure NONE. All the champions of rights of women are distorting what Imran said. Is those “parchi” women siting in assembly ever did anything for common Paki women. Are those women represent the true household women of Pakistan. Imran whats the true representation of women in assembly and we will support him. Please don’t try to fool people and grow up!


  • Mohammad Assad
    Dec 20, 2012 - 11:07PM

    I dont really understand the ruckus, since its not as if NO woman parliamentarian is elected…many many women come into the parliament via direct elections. Lest we forget the two time PM of the country, and first woman PM in an Islamic Country, i.e. Benazir Bhutto, who was elected post a time when there was much more conservatism in society.
    Those who believe in democracy cannot stand for any form of quotas whether they be for men or women parliamentarians. But since its IK who wanted to abolish the reserved quotas, let us all support a parliamentary amendment brought on by a dictator.
    Criticism for the sake of criticism is just pathetic.


    Dec 20, 2012 - 11:21PM

    actually you have a right to disagree with him, but during the course of this article, your bais against IMRAN was becoming increasingly visible instead of doing neutral analysis on the issue…
    u say that PTI is now doing damage control, if this was the case, Y PTI would fix reserved quota for women in its INTRA PARTY ELECTIONS????
    He clarified his stance within hours of his speech on twitter, But Status Quo and so called champions of civil society wont miss an opportunity to bash him


  • Syed Awais
    Dec 20, 2012 - 11:30PM

    Ma’am, with due respect, you are three days too late!

    Imran Khan himself clarified his statement in his interview by Hamid Mir on Monday. Perhaps you did not watch the said show because had you watched you would not have wasted your and infinitely more precious time of your readers by writing this pointless op-ed.



  • patriot
    Dec 20, 2012 - 11:40PM

    Say No to family politics! and those reserved seats for women is part of the problem! IK talks much more sense than pro-status quo people.


  • Falcon
    Dec 20, 2012 - 11:46PM

    Seems like one of those ‘me too’ articles, I think IK has clarified himself enough number of times that PTI is NOT against reserved seats. Let me try to put it in simple terms for the informationally challenged ones: Reserved Seats with Nominations = No, Reserved Seats with Elections = Yes


  • Nadir
    Dec 21, 2012 - 2:51AM

    As always, many men explaining to a women, what the fuss is about, on issues related to women.


  • Umer Rasheed
    Dec 21, 2012 - 10:05AM

    Criticism for the sake of criticism


  • Mirza
    Dec 21, 2012 - 10:50AM

    I can fully appreciate the balanced Op Ed by ET. IK and his supporter’s arguments are the same as White men offer against “affirmative action” program in the US. To bring minorities especially colored people and native American Indians at par with white population the govt is giving them preference. The elite privileged Whites and those want to be whites hate this policy of bringing minorities at par with quota system and preference. The talk against it by using words like these are lazy people, it is unfair, not on merit and so on. May times these affirmative actions have been challenged but till such time there is a huge difference between the races this program would continue and it has helped the minorities and low income (which minorities usually are) people a lot.
    Apart from mode of election direct or indirect there must be a proportional representation of women in Pakistan till such time they gain parity. How many judges in the SC bench of 17 were women? Like parliament these judges give imp decisions which affect the lives of families and women, yet they have no feminine prospect! What a shame that some are targeting the writer of their hate when it comes to the equality and rights of women. Men made and approved Pakistani constitution which dictates the mode of election on the reserved seats. What men dominated parliament did iss that women’s fault?


  • True Picture
    Dec 21, 2012 - 12:04PM

    I think there is a difference between elected representatives chosen by the people & reserved seats which are chosen by the party heads! Imran Khan clearly said that women should be elected by the people not selected by the party heads! can’t you or other extreme liberals comprehend this statement by him? on one hand you guys proclaim to be champions of democracy & on the other hand you guys want a quota system? You better concentrate on your NGO company from where you & your family earns big bucks, so leave us Pakistanis to decide our future :)


  • salman k
    Dec 21, 2012 - 12:19PM

    i would request farzana to keep keep herself updated…imran khan has already clarified this can watch hamid mir’s latest interview with imran khan


  • Dec 21, 2012 - 3:15PM

    Sir. I am afraid you are still missing the point. Affirmative action is based on inherited trait of color. You can not manipulate the system to benefit from affirmative action if you are a white person. All IK said is the same thing that we should prevent abuse of the system by influential political families by mandating elections to the maximum extent possible so that there is some semblance of fairness to the process and his justification was well reasoned, how many poor women have been nominated so far to the parliament, I don’t know of any (may be there are but very few). This will level the playing ground to a certain extent and give all women the opportunity to compete.


  • asim
    Dec 21, 2012 - 4:01PM

    The Pakistani Constitution reserves 10 seats for religious minorities and 60 seats for women,(article 51) to be filled by proportional representation among parties with more than 5% of the vote. As of 2006, there are 72 women members in the Assembly.

    So far this has failed to deliver how many village women sitting in assemblies?
    Most of the selected ladies belong to the burger class having no clue of the issues of women. I can challenge the selected ones are not the best.The system needs thorough overhauling.


  • mirealistic
    Dec 21, 2012 - 4:20PM

    Increase the women quota from 17% to 33% and also allow them to contest elections just like their male counterparts? This is what you call equality? What a rubbish article.


  • Sultan
    Dec 21, 2012 - 4:24PM

    Have you looked at the PTI elections recently? They are electing women in each constituency. Perhaps you should pay more attention to what people do and not what they say (although Imran was misquoted) to determine which side of justice they belong to.

    The only progressive party in Pakistan on women and minority issues is PTI–rest are just old boys clubs!


  • Sultan
    Dec 21, 2012 - 4:29PM

    I nominate @Mirza for a reserved seat for women! He has about the same intellect as the guilded begums currently crushing the seat cushions in the assembly chairs!


  • Saeed Ahmed
    Dec 21, 2012 - 5:13PM

    Most of the women parliamentarians on reserve seats came from elite families background. Imran’s remarks were basically correct that there should be some sort of merit based selection for reserved seats. This class always try to menipulate n twist the real facts towards their vested interests.


  • Mirza
    Dec 21, 2012 - 8:09PM

    Thanks for keeping the argument civil and not making it personal like some. I know there are few if any common women who are nominated in the legislature. However, the same is true for the men, minority leaders and even directly elected leaders. Yet there is no such vitriol against these men. A person of little means has little chance to even contest elections whether direct or indirect. Even in the US a senate seat may require tens of millions to be a candidate.
    When it came to challenging the first dictator there was no ordinary man or woman except Miss Jinnah who was English speaking elite. Yet she stood against the entrenched dictator when no man could. Until we change or dramatically improve our system and constitution we would have to offer an affirmative action of sorts to women. What is a practical, positive, immediate and constitutional way to bring poor women at par with men in a male dominated world?
    Best regards,

  • Mirza
    Dec 21, 2012 - 11:00PM

    @Saeed Ahmed: “Most of the women parliamentarians on reserve seats came from elite families background. Imran’s remarks were basically correct that there should be some sort of merit based selection for reserved seats.”
    Sir I agree that most of the parliamentarians men or women all seats whether open or reserve came from elite families background. Even if there is a merit standard even then only elite women would be elected as there are not many highly qualified poor women in the country. This is unfortunate but a sad truth and till such time when we have parity between men and women between rich and poor what do we do? In democracy we elect from what is available not the ideal that we have in mind. Pakistani elite and otherwise women are our mothers, sisters and daughters. Some are even good enough that most Pakistanis choose them as their life partner. Evolution is a slow process and till such time we have to have more women representation no matter how they are chosen depending upon the men made constitution.

  • sidrah
    Dec 22, 2012 - 1:30PM

    Anyone who gives Benazir’s and Hina Rabbani Khar’s example sorry to say but both of them achieved success riding on the coattails of their male family member. I bet that if Imran Khan abolished women seats there would be no women in the parliament. and a democracy is meant to represent all members of society not just the men.


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