Role of women in politics in Pakistan

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26 February 2016

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All countries have a political culture that consists of commonly held values about the nation, state, regime and more. Political scientists rarely include attitudes toward current leaders or issues in a country’s culture. In many ways, a country’s culture is a reflection of the impact of its history has on popular values today. Thus, Indians’ strong attachment to the caste system and the antagonism between Hindus and Muslims both have to be traced back hundreds of years to the way their social structures evolved before and after the arrival of the Mughals a thousand years ago. The importance of women’s political participation and mobilization for a viable Democratic Polity is being increasingly realized in all corners of the world. Women constitute 48% of the Pakistan’s population that is not being utilized in the national development due to their low skill, less education and less empowerment in the realm of politics. Any democratic system cannot run successfully with just half of the population and other half is marginalized. The traditional norms regarding women’s activities as noted by different theorists have been carried generation to generation unquestioningly. The general assumption is that the political activities belong to the “Public Sphere” and women by nature belong to the “Private Sphere” and “Politics” is something ‘alien’ to their nature. 2)

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Before partition some of the Muslim women were active in social sphere and they led the movement of social reformism. The efforts of Begum Shah Nawaz were indeed worth mentioning. She was an active member in many organizations including the All India Women’s Conference (This organization was formed in 1926. Margaret Cousins, who was also a founding member of the Women’s Indian Association (WIA), was also the force behind this move. According to Jahanara, Cousins sent the circular argued for its constitution on the ground that there was a need for an organization that could achieve and safeguard the rights of the women and … work for their general advancement.
Shahnaz Rosue, 2006. She on the platform of women’s Indian Association demanded the 10% quota for women in the legislative assembly but 3% was accepted in the franchise committee in 1935 (Sultana Samar,2008). The same kind of quota of seats was also accepted for women in 1954 at the last meeting of constituent assembly on the basis of charter of women rights presented by Begum Shah Nawaz. In 1935 Begum Shah Nawaz was the part of the discussion of second and third round table conferences and to its joint select committee in 1934, on behalf of women and minorities (She was elected as member of the Punjab Legislative assembly, and was appointed parliamentary secretary education, medical relief and public health. In 1942 she was expelled from Muslim League. However she was allowed back in and once again elected member Punjab assembly.

She was elected to the constituent assembly in 1946. She was one of the two Muslim women to serve in this capacity. Shahnaz Rouse, 2006. It was her dynamic personality that took the responsibility of women’s rights in India, and furthered the cause of the community in general after the death of Bi-Amma. Begum Shah Nawaz presented women’s rights at international level in 1931 when she was invited to attend the League of Nations session in Geneva, and later at the International Labour Organization in 1935 (Bi-Amma—mother of Ali Brothers— worked as political activist after the imprisonment of Muslim leadership during the Khilafat Movement. Bi-Amma attracted more women to their struggle and prepare them for participation in the movement. Public participation generated in educated women an awareness of wider problems. A series of meetings was organized by all India Muslim ladies Conference— the first association of Muslim ladies started by the begum of Bohapal in 1915—to recommend the management of social problems, concerning the status of Muslim women. After independence, elite Muslim women in Pakistan continued to advocate women’s political empowerment through legal reforms.

They mobilized the support that led to the passage of the Muslim Personal Law of Sharia in 1948, which recognized a woman’s right to inherit all forms of property. Begum Shah Nawaz and Begum Shaista Ikramullah represented women in Pakistan’s first constitution making Body—the constituent assembly. In 1956 constitution, universal suffrage and reservation of special seats in the legislature were accorded to women on the basis of direct female suffrage. The study of empowerment of women in the perspective of Pakistan by the sociopolitical mobilization of women at the level of the union council will depict the trends of democratization. The process of democratization in Pakistan in terms of political reforms seemingly provided the space to women to realize and understand the maxim ‘the personal is political’ (Adriana Craciun, 2002). Karl Mannheim and as well the Edward Shills described the process of social mobilization as an aspect of democratization in which segments of the society are exposed to new developments and behavior is going to be organized on the bases of the available patterns of development (Karl W Deutsch, 1961). So in this regard we have to analyze the basic political features of the political system of Pakistan at the union council level in which women quota was of 33%, introduced after 2001. The empowerment of women in terms of their mobilization as an aspect of political participation would be the litmus to judge that how far it has been materialized. It could be visualized that difference in the approach of gender development could be the outcome of the political patterns of the non western democracy, as stated by the Lucian W. Pye.

He stated that in the Non-Western society political and non political Spheres are diffused and people’s mobilization is happened along with the primordial factors rather than the instrumental ones and all political behavior is strongly colored by the considerations of communal identification (Lucian W. Pye, 1958). So in this context Pakistan’s politics is no exception and political ideas are not competitive ones. So the majority of the population is going to be mobilized along the traditional patterns which further relegated the position of women in the society of Pakistan in-spite of getting their quotas at different level of representation. In Pakistan, the Devolution of Power Plan (a local government plan) was adopted in March 2000, reserving 33 per cent seats for women in legislative councils at the local, tehsil, municipality and district level.

In local councils, with an increase in the number of councils, about 70,000 women were gaining experience in self-government (Report on Local Self- Government: Pakistan 2000). However, members of the tehsil and district councils are indirectly elected by the elected councilors at the local level. Women in Pakistan also feel a clear benefit from the quotas. They have faced problems, including hostile male attitudes, the lack of a constituency due to the process of indirect elections, and being at the mercy of the male councilors who elect them and often assign
them to committees dealing only with “women’s issues”(CAPWIP, 2000). Nevertheless, they are making their presence felt. According to Farzana Bari “the fact that a huge number of women had taken active political role itself triggered social change, creating waves in the country’s barnyards where traditional power structures still dominate the social and political lives of people”(Farzana Bari,2009).

In Pakistan, the growth of a militant Islamic fundamentalism has included special forms of discrimination against women which are justified by appeals to Islamic tradition. This happened in-spite of having equalitarian provisions in the constitution of Pakistan. The situation worsened dramatically with the “Islamist” regime of Zia ul-Haq. Measures dating from Zia’s times include the Law of Evidence, in which a women witness has a status of half that of a male witness, and the Hudood Ordinances under which the vast majority of women in prison today have been charged. February 12 is celebrated as Pakistan Women’s Day to memorialize a massive protest against the Law of Evidence in 1983 which met with state brutality. Still, at the central level, women’s participation in governance has seen a very slow movement forward. Programmes of special representation have gone through several stages. The 1956, 1962 and 1973 constitutions all provided for reserved seats for women at both the provincial and national assemblies. The allotment of seats ranged from 5 to 10 per cent and was only through indirect elections by the members of the assemblies themselves.

A request for a 30 percent reservation was expressed in 1988 by the National Campaign for Restoration of Women’s Reserved Seats and figured again in a “national consultation” organized by the ministry of women and development in 2001. Eleven political parties endorsed a 30 percent quota for women in the provincial and national assemblies. President Musharraf then presided over an act passed in 2002 which allocated 17 per cent seats in the national and provincial assemblies and the senate to women. The 60 (of 342) seats in the national assembly are three times more than the previous 20 seats they held. Women improved this quota when elections were held winning 21.2 per cent of the total seats, the highest percentage of all south Asian countries. However, the seats are allocated to the political parties in proportion to their electoral standing, and there is again a system of nomination the names are picked from the top of a list of 60 women that each party presents to the electoral authorities before the election.

The electoral form, then, is doubly undemocratic first in giving male dominated political parties direct control over their nominees, and then in giving male top power holders the right to choose from the list. Women chosen under such a system cannot be called in any real sense representatives of the people (let alone a women’s constituency). The obstacles to women’s equal participation in governance are deeply embedded in South Asian social and cultural patterns. The patriarchal nature of most of these countries is starkly shown by Amartya Sen’s criteria of “missing women”(Gail Omvedt, 2005). In the bureaucratic and political institutions, their participation is less than men. It was caused by some of the traditional factors like the patriarchal nature of the society. Another obstacle to women’s political participation is the intensely competitive nature of politics itself. In the countries of South Asia, politics is a lucrative source of income and power which men attempt to control. In this way they were seemingly less active agent in the society and were performing the functions which were not of worth for the community development and governance and considerably the position rendered to them as ‘women’s place is in the home’.

In Pakistan’s upcoming general elections on March 11th 2013 only 36 women are contesting general National Assembly seats on political party tickets, up from 34 in the 2008 elections. This low number contradicts overall trends whereby a growing number of women are contesting elections as independent candidates and more women are registered to vote than ever before. Despite these indicators, Pakistan’s political parties have done little in this election cycle to facilitate women’s participation in the political process. This is owing to fears of low female voter turnout and the consequence of local government systems that have prevented political parties from cultivating female candidates at the grass-roots level. Pakistan’s outgoing National Assembly – the first one in the country’s history to complete a full five-year term – was also exceptional for the activity of female parliamentarians: 20 out of 53 private members’ bills during the government’s tenure were moved by women, and women outperformed their male counterparts in terms of formal interventions during parliamentary proceedings (FAFEN, 2012).

But this greater participation is not reflected in the number of women contesting seats on political party tickets in the upcoming general elections scheduled for May 11th 2013. Despite indicators that a growing number of women are entering politics and registering to vote, Pakistan’s political parties have done little in this election cycle to facilitate female participation in the political process. Pakistan’s national and provincial assemblies have reserved seats for women and candidates are appointed to these on the basis of their party’s electoral strength. The quota for reserved women’s seats was increased to 17% by former president Pervez Musharraf in 2002 in a bid to improve female representation. However, these reserved seats have since been criticized for perpetuating tokenism, especially since most women nominated to the seats hail from politically well-established and influential families.

For example, in the 2013 elections the Punjab-based Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) has nominated the party chairman’s niece and the wife and daughter of PMLN senator Chaudhry Jafar Iqbal for reserved women’s seats in the National Assembly. In this context gains in female participation in Pakistan’s political process are better gauged by the number of women contesting general seats, i.e. openly contested and directly elected seats that are not reserved for women or religious minorities. This year, 108 women are contesting the 272 general National Assembly seats, up from 76 in the 2008 elections. But only 36 of these are party-ticket holders – a minimal increase from 34 in the 2008 elections – with the remainder standing as independents. The number of female ticket holders for the Pakistan People’s Party, which led the previous coalition government, has dropped from 15 in 2008 to 11 out of 219 in 2013; the number of women contesting general National Assembly seats for the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-e-Azam has also fallen from eight to four out of a total of 41. The Karachi-based Muttahida Qaumi Movement has fielded seven female candidates (up from five in 2008) out of a total of 81, as has the PMLN (up from six) out of a total of 219. The Awami National Party and Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf have awarded party tickets to two and five female candidates out of totals of 45 and 241, respectively, for general National Assembly seats. 3) Conclusion

In conclusion, there has been a significant and perhaps qualitative change as number of women has emerged into politics at the local level. The remarks of L C Jain quietly reflect the political situation in Pakistan. She stated that, “[the] news…is good. Women have entered in the political/electoral process in large numbers – the process is irreversible. It is no longer empowerment of women. Women have stepped into seats of power”. A review of the history of Pakistan highlights a few over lapping factors that continue to contribute to women’s subordination: the cultural legacy; the-class based socio-economic and political structure; the urban/rural divide; the patriarchal practices; and the role of religion in the polity.

Women activism remained, and remains, confined to legal rights, demanding rights based on religion and their domestic role and not as citizens of Pakistan; the issues revolve around representation in the parliament or various bodies formed by the state. These state sponsored efforts (official commissions on women in 1955, 1976, 1985, 2001) were confined to urban women, effectively restricting articipation to urban activists with a moderate agenda along with the representatives of conservative and modernist Islamists. The demand for fair allocation of resources in the urban/rural or class context or a challenge to the existing structural hierarchies can potentially rupture their superior status and deny class-based advantages. Any possible unity based on class is disrupted by gender differences, while shared womanhood is fractured by differences in the socio-economic location of women. This had a damaging effect on expanding the role and representation of lower and lower-middle-class working women from rural and urban areas. This urban focus of the policy makers, in socio-economic and political arenas, not only ignores and excludes the living realities of rural lower- and middle-class women but also fails to acknowledge alternative ways of examining the women question and female subjectivity.


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"Role of women in politics in Pakistan" StudyScroll, Feb 26, 2016.

"Role of women in politics in Pakistan" StudyScroll, 26-Feb-2016. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 2-Oct-2023]

StudyScroll. (2016). Role of women in politics in Pakistan. [Online]. Available at: [Accessed: 2-Oct-2023]

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