Passenger seats for female politicians

Five years is a very short time to undo decades of male dominance in the political arena

Small yellow lights dot the circular ceiling. Long, thin microphones cast shadows on gleaming wooden desks. Mr Jinnah stands against the front wall, facing 342 empty plush brown seats. The men who sit upon them will soon hold the reins to his creation. The women will of course, be part of the journey. But most will only be given a space on the passenger seats.

Sixty women always have the right to sit in the National Assembly (NA) without contesting the general elections, as a result of the Legal Framework Order 2002 brought into force by former dictator General Pervez Musharraf. As per the 1973 Constitution, Article 51 (6d), these reserved seats are allocated “on the basis of total number of general seats secured by each political party from the Province concerned in the National Assembly”. One woman is awarded a reserved seat for every 4.5 general seats won by her party. But these special seats for women are a double-edged sword; they prevent women from genuine political participation while creating the illusion of encouraging gender equality.

Women sitting on reserve seats hold superficial positions in the NA. Admittance into the democratic house does not equal acceptance into decision making political circles. Since reserve seats are complimentary positions, filling them becomes little more than a formality. Any woman in the core committee’s good books can secure a place. But to play a meaningful role, the female politician must be indispensable. She must be both a woman of the party and the people. To become part of the male coterie, she must run in the same race as her male counterparts. The female politician must refuse the passenger seat and contest from a constituency instead.

A candidate’s constituency is their stepping stone. During the campaigning period a candidate interacts with various communities in their area. For that little time, sitting on a rickety stool in a dirty street between the common people drinking tea, he or she ceases to be part of the unreachable political elite. Every handshake creates a bond; the candidate is remembered by the people even if he is unable to win a seat. And if he continues to make his presence known in the said constituency, five years later, he becomes his party’s pillar in the area. Contesting the general elections cements his identity as a politician and provides it space to grow.

Now without a constituency to call home, women who arrive on reserved seats are inherently vulnerable. Their political careers hinge solely upon the wills and whims of their party’s core committee, for they lack self-standing. To address the issue, for the first time this year, awarding tickets to women was made mandatory for every political party. Under Section 206 of the Elections Act 2017 there must be “at least five percent representation of women candidates” on general seats. Parties which fail to meet this requirement are not entitled to an election symbol as per Section 215 of the Act.

Subsequently, from a total of 642 tickets issued by Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), 41 tickets were awarded to women. Similarly, from a total of 769 tickets issued by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, 39 tickets were awarded to women and from a total of 639 tickets issued by Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, 36 tickets were awarded to women. However, according to the data collected by the National Commission on the Status of Women, only 8 of the 171 female candidates contesting on general seats made it to the national assembly this year; a 4.6 percent success rate despite the new 5 percent quota. For the general elections held in 2013 this success rate stood at 5.6 percent with 9 of the 161 female candidates winning a general seat. So where did it all go wrong?

Without a constituency to call home, women who arrive on reserved seats are inherently vulnerable. Their political careers hinge solely upon the wills and whims of their party’s core committee

Many of the women contesting on general seats were placed in constituencies where their party’s chances of victory were bleak. Former deputy speaker Sindh Shehla Raza was pitched against PTI Chairman Imran Khan in NA-243 by her party. Unsurprisingly she lost with 10,631 votes while Imran Khan claimed victory with 91,358 votes. Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal fielded 95 candidates for the KP Assembly. Out these only one was a woman — Farzana Rehan. She was chosen to contest from PK-41 Haripur; a constituency from which no religious political party has ever secured a victory in the past. Accordingly, Ms Rehan attained the eighth position with 571 votes while PTI’s Arshad Ayub Khan attained victory with 56, 270 votes. But this clever use of the five percent requirement is not the sole cause for concern.

Forty four political parties did not field a single female candidate and were still allotted election symbols by the ECP. Certain parties such as the Jamiyat Ulema-e-Islam-S, Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek and PTI Nazaryati, did field female candidates but failed to meet the five percent quota. Such parties were also permitted to contest the general elections, making a complete mockery of both the legal stipulation and the need for directly elected female politicians. Political leaders, such as JUI-F’s secretary information Maulana Jalil Jan, argued that it was very difficult to find suitable female candidates at such short notice in areas where even women voters were unwelcome. Perhaps the parties were unprepared this year. But how prepared will they be five years from now with reserved seats offering a quick fix to the gender equality issue? Where there is a will there is a way. But for men running the political circus in our country where there is an easier (albeit superficial) solution, there is no problem.

Therefore, a great burden rests upon the shoulders of women sitting in the NA this year. These women must not only be their parties’ voices in the democratic house. They must also be leaders for aspiring female politicians and work to bring about reforms which will enable women to fairly contest on general seats. The percentage of compulsory party tickets for women must be increased drastically and strictly implemented such that women are no longer buckled into passenger seats. New narratives normalising the notion of female politicians contesting from constituencies must be built, and the process must start now. Five years is a very short time to undo decades of male dominance in the political arena.

The writer has a Masters in media with a distinction from the London School of Economics. She Tweets @mawish_m

Published in Daily Times, August 17th 2018.