Roaring tigresses of Pakistani Parliament



By Shahzad Raza



Pakistan enjoys the distinction of giving Muslim world its first Prime Minister and Speaker of the National Assembly. The percentage of women parliamentarians is highest in Pakistan among all South Asian countries except Nepal.


Currently, a female parliamentarian holds the strategically important slot of foreign minister. Another colleague of her served as information minister. Women in Pakistan are successfully competing with their male counterparts in almost every field.


The people of Pakistan elected Benazir Bhutto as prime minister, in 1988. She was one of the roaring tigresses of South Asia sharing excellence, competence and brilliance like that of Indira Gandhi of India and Sirivamo Bandranaika of Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, Ms Bhutto is no more but her legacy remains.


In 2001, General Pervez Musharraf issued a Legal Framework Order (LFO). Whereas, the LFO contained controversial constitutional amendments to perpetuate or strengthen the control of General Musharraf, it coincidently made some commendable changes including joint electoral for minorities and allocation of reserved seats for women in the Senate, National Assembly and four Provincial Assemblies.


It was a great spectacle to watch over 60 women first time entering the chamber of National Assembly post 2002 general elections, though critics alleged General Musharraf of massively rigging those polls.


Both the People’s Party and the PML-Nawaz contested the elections in the absence of their popular leaders – Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif – and joined hands to constitute a vociferous opposition to constantly irate General Musharraf & Co.


The 2002 Parliament witnessed a blend of young and experienced blood. Senior politicians like Fehmida Mirza, Attiya Anayatullah, Tehmina Daultana and several others graced both treasure and opposition benches. And there were those who attained the milestone for the first time but had a lot of zeal and passion to established their fame and credibility. Some of them were rather successful. Take Sherry Rehman and Yasmeen Rehman for example. They moved important legislation relating domestic violence, human rights, education, health and social services, etc.


“I have moved more than 50 bills since I became Member of the National Assembly (MNA). This is something remarkable. Something which was unheard of in the past,” observed Yasmeen Rehman.


She elaborated the private members’ bills in 2002 National Assembly were rarely referred to the standing committees, as then parliamentary affairs minister late Sher Afgan Niazi was fond of opposing every bill emanating from the opposition benches. The situation changed dramatically post 2008 general elections, when the People’s Party formed its government.


“Six of my bills have become the acts of Parliament. This is something amazing. It was my bill that now compels the government to hold census after every 10 years. Recently, a bill calling for compulsory education has been passed,” she added.


Initially, people were skeptical whether a large number of women parliamentarians would actually make a difference. At several occasions they were ridiculed by their male colleagues. A very senior party leader once joked that over 60 women among (frustrated) men might increase the rate of divorce. Amid that mindset those women commenced their parliamentary journey.


Nonetheless, it was laudable initiative given the global ratio of female representation was hovering around 18 percent. The concept of reserved seats was aimed at breaking their political isolation, but it should be treated as temporary measure until the women’s participation in general politics becomes a norm.


Pakistan is a patriarchal society. Uneven socioeconomic and cultural barriers deny a level-playing field for the women. The role of women to formulate economic and social policies is almost non-existence. This is not what the Constitution of Pakistan says. The supreme document envisages their full participation in decision-making process along with their male counterparts.


Singling Pakistan out on women disempowerment or incarceration should be taken in historical context vis-à-vis the state of women. The world witnessed gradual improvement in the plight of women whether they lived in Europe or the United States or any other (now) developed country.


For instance, New Zealand was the first to offer women the right to vote, in 1893. In Europe, Finland was first to allow women cast their vote in 1906 followed by Norway in 1913, Canada in 1917, Germany and Poland in 1918, America in 1920 and Turkey in 1926.


So the modern history of women’s political empowerment spans 120 years. During all these years tremendous developments have taken place. According to International Parliamentary Union (IPU), the average percentage of women in Parliament is slightly more than 18 percent.


The Scandinavian countries have highest number of women parliamentarians primarily because of strong democratic culture, personal freedom, secularization of the society, strong political parties system, economic and social empowerment, human welfare and equality of people before the law.


The IPU statistics show that Pakistan has second highest number of women Parliamentarians (22.5 percent) among South Asian countries after Nepal. In India only 9.1 percent of the total Parliamentarians are female. However, this may not be the sole barometer of women emancipation and empowerment in any given country.


The research conducted by Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT) showed the Constitutions of 1956 and 1962 reserved six seats for women in the National Assembly, while the 1973 Constitution reserved 10 seats. They were doubled in 1985 when a legislature based on non-party elections came into being. Finally, General Musharraf’s LFO increased the women seats to sixty in the National Assembly.


In the October 2002 General Elections, 60 of the 342 seats in National Assembly were allocated to women- three times higher than the previous reservation of 20 seats for women.


History of Pakistan is replete with examples where women displayed a great deal of political acumen and courage. First to challenge the military dictator (Ayub Khan) was none other but Madr-e-Millat Fatima Jinnah. That legacy of the sister of Quaid-e-Azam was revived by Begum Nusrat Bhutto. And finally the choice fell on Benazir Bhutto to defy the last military dictator like she confronted his predecessor throughout 1980s.


Besides, three above-mentioned female Pakistani leaders Begum Nasim Wali and Ghinwa Bhutto have also lead their respective political parties. But none could attain what Benazir Bhutto had – premiership for two terms.


Presence of capable women in Parliament – no matter they get elected on reserved or general seats – has been positive development. It may be inappropriate to doubt the sincerity of women indirectly elected from those who are elected directly. However, the rate of political acumen would certainly show variation in those two categories.


In 2008 general elections slightly more than 10 female candidates contested the direct elections and beat their male rivals. They included Faryal Talpur, Hina Rabbani Khar, Firdous Ashiq Awan, Fehmida Mirza, Samina Khalid Ghurki, Sumera Malik, etc.


The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) data revealed as many as 60 female candidates contested for the National Assembly seats in 2008.


In order to enhance the participation of women in direct elections, a bill has been pending with the National Assembly secretariat. It never came on the agenda of the house for unknown reasons. The bill envisages allocation of 10 percent of general elections tickets to women by every political party.
But it involves many ifs and buts. Besides, the political parties may not be ready to risk losing important constituencies by fielding female contestants. Perhaps, Pakistan needs a couple of more decades to join the league of countries with high political participation of females in popular politics.


Until then relying on reserved seats for women will definitely do good than causing any harm. –Ends