So according to this news report in the Express Tribune, Imran Khan has announced that he opposes the way women in Pakistan enter the National Assembly on reserved seats. At a seminar called “Justice for Women” hosted by the PTI, Khan said that women should not be “nominated from a list” for those seats, but should “contest direct elections” the way the rest of the seats are contested for in the Assembly.
Currently, there are seventy (70) seats in Pakistan’s National Assembly reserved for women (60) and for minority members (10) of Parliament. A woman or a religious minority can fight an election for any other seat, but these seats are exclusively for them. 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.
So you don’t have to be elected to hold one of these seats; you get one of them assigned to you after your party holds an election to select you for the seat. Imran Khan says he wants to do away with this indirect system and make the women fight for those reserved seats directly like everyone else has to do in the general Assembly seats. This is the way forward to a more democratic system, says Khan.
Another criticism of this system is that the women in these seats (it is claimed) don’t actually do anything useful in Parliament; they are “placeholders” for their husbands and cannot act on their own.
Let’s deal with the first issue first: that women should fight directly for these elections, not be elected within their parties and then be nominated for the seats. Imran Khan says, “How can some women be representative of women when they haven’t even contested elections? In some areas it is not possible for women to contest elections.”
Okay, Mr. Khan. If this is true, that in some areas it is not possible for women to contest elections in general, why are you are insisting that they should contest direct elections for reserved seats? I find this to be a highly impractical, if not downright contradictory, stance. There will be a complete failure to find enough women to contest all these elections throughout the country, especially in the more conservative areas of Pakistan. There is even the danger that these seats may eventually be taken off the reserved list if there aren’t enough women willing to fight direct elections, and go back to men.
Imran Khan also says, “Political parties should hold elections within their ranks and promote women into higher leadership positions.”
You mean, like when women are elected by the political parties and then nominated for reserved seats in the National Assembly?
I quote the wise Marvi Sirmed on the issue of women directly contesting elections.
The matter of contesting direct elections has so many other factors involved, that do not favour women’s participation. Also, contrary to general perception, not all of the women in legislatures come from elite / feudal classes. There are so many women who have come forward from rank and files of parties. And there are many more who are ready for next elections. We have parliamentarians who have been part of women movement in Pakistan. Do you think they would be able to contest elections if snatched [from] these seats?
Also, not many parties are going to give tickets to women from winnable seats. That’s why we raised the issue before the election commission that at least 20% tickets should be given to women candidates. The Election Commission agreed to make it 10% tickets and include it in the Political Representation Act that governs political parties. But political parties (the right wing parties, Q-League, PTI, PMLN, JUI-F etc) did not even agree to 10%.
The problem, Mr. Khan, 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, even for reserved seats. As you yourself have acknowledged, 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.
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 I’d like to argue a different angle: that the reserved seat system, though it seems to go against democratic principles, serves as a way of getting women in greater numbers into the Assembly FULL STOP. This type of affirmative action for women in itself is empowering and visionary, and a great example for all the people of Pakistan. To do away with this system at the moment would be setting women back many, many decades.
When we have reached 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 those reserved seats. That day is many years away. I would say it is still several generations away.
Marvi Sirmed says that 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. “The world has evolved many modalities, e.g. direct elections on reserved seats while expanding constituencies for women candidates”.
It’s certainly reasonable to place greater scrutiny on the women in the reserved seats, to ensure that they are actually serving as they are meant to, and not just enjoying perks or furthering the individual needs of their family members. But that is not a problem limited to women in reserved seats; in fact, it’s a problem that all Assembly members and ministers and army chiefs and elected officials and bureaucrats have contributed to for the last sixty-odd years of Pakistan’s existence.
But above all, we must protect the tradition of reserved seats for women, and never, ever eliminate it: this will drive us back to pre-1973 conditions (1973 is the year they were created), according to Marvi Sirmed. She 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 don’t have farmer and peasant men also, so should we scrap men’s seats too? That the nominations are given to the influential women is also a myth.
Hands off our reserved seats! We have fought long and hard for them, and we will not give them up easily. It’s very easy to destroy systems, Mr. Khan, but it is very difficult to build them – and you should know better than to attempt this particular “reform” in the name of your election campaign.
Here is a list I found on Wikipedia (updated on December 12) that breaks down the reserved seats and who is holding them at the moment, by province:
Khyber Pukhtunkhwa (8)
- Ms. Bushra Gohar ANP
- Ms. Jamila Gallani ANP
- Ms. Khurshid Begum Saeed ANP
- Ms. Asma Arbab Alamgir PPPP
- Malik Mehrunnisa Afridi Advocate PPPP
- Mrs. Farhat Khan PPPP
- Dr. Imtiaz Sultan Bukhari PML(N)
- Mrs. Farzana Mushtaq Ghani PML
- Fata (0)
- Federal (0)
- Punjab (34)
- Begum Ishrat Ashraf PML(N)
- Ms. Qudsia Arshad PML(N)
- Ms. Tahira Aurangzeb PML(N)
- Begum Nuzhat Sadiq PML(N)
- Ms. Nighat Parveen Mir PML(N)
- Ms. Khalida Mansoor PML(N)
- Ms. Shahnaz Saleem PML(N)
- Ms. Parveen Masood Bhatti PML(N)
- Ms. Sabeen Rizvi PML(N)
- Ms. Shireen Arshad Khan PML(N)
- Ms. Surriya Ashgar PML(N)
- Ms. Tasneem Siddiqui PML(N)
- Mrs. Nisar Tanveer PML(N)
- Ms. Shaheen Ashfaq PML(N)
- Mrs. Anusha Rahman Khan Advocate PML(N)
- Ms. Rukhsana Bangash PPPP
- Ms. Shahnaz Wazir Ali PPPP
- Miss. Palwasha Khan PPPP
- Mrs. Belum Hasnain PPPP
- Ms. Mehreen Anwar Raja Advocate PPPP
- Ms. Farzana Raja PPPP
- Justice (R) Fakhar-un-Nisa Khokhar PPPP
- Miss. Fouzia Habib PPPP
- Mrs. Shakeela Khanam Rashid PPPP
- Mrs. Yasmeen Rehman PPPP
- Ms. Samina Mushtaq Pagganwala PPPP
- Begum Nasim Akhtar Chaudhry PPPP
- Ms. Nosheen Saeed PML
- Ms. Kashmala Tariq PML
- Begum Shahnaz Sheikh PML
- Dr. Donya Aziz PML
- Mrs. Attiya Inayatullah PML
- Ms. Bushra Rahman PML
- Mrs Tanzila Aamir Cheema PML
- Sindh (14)
- Mrs. Surraiya Jatoi PPPP
- Mrs. Farah Naz Ispahani PPPP
- Dr. Mahreen Razaque Bhutto PPPP
- Ms. Fauzia Wahab PPPP
- Ms. Rubina Saadat Qaim Khani PPPP
- Dr. Nafisa Shah PPPP
- Miss. Shagufta Jumani PPPP
- Dr. Nahid Shahid Ali MQM
- Ms. Kishwer Zehra MQM
- Mrs. Fouzia Ejaz Khan MQM
- Mrs. Imrana Saeed Jamil MQM
- Mrs. Shagufta Sadiq MQM
- Ms. Fiza Junejo PML
- Ms. Reena Kumari PML(F)
- Balochestan (3)
- Mrs. Zubaida Jalal PML
- Dr. Zil-e-Huma PPPP
- Mrs. Asiya Nasir MMAP