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  • Women for Politics

Milestones in Women’s Political Representation in Pakistan

In the Global Gender Gap Index 2020, Pakistan ranked 151 out of 153 countries. When solely considering its performance in terms of political empowerment of women, their rank jumps to 93. Pakistani politics has always been tumultuous, with a barrage of regime changes and subsequent ideological shifts. This has left women’s representation on a skewed path, often being at the mercy of the whims of the ruling party. Sporadic reversion to military rule also served as a major roadblock as it is by nature antithetical to inclusive democratic remedies. Despite this, a number of legal reforms since Pakistan’s independence have created pathways for women participation in the political arena, augmented by consistent support from civil society. However, structural constraints still exist.


History of Women in Politics 

Before independence, the British followed a dual policy of promoting modernity and reinforcing tradition. For example, while the system of law in British India was anglicized, customary and religious law that subordinated women was left untouched.

Many women actively participated in the independence movement as well as the movement for Pakistan. Although the visibility of women in politics was limited to elite women from well-connected families, they contributed to the idea that possibilities for women were opening up in the new country.

Two women were elected to the Central Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, Jahanara Shahnawaz and Shaista Ikramullah. They tabled a bill, ‘Charter for Women’s Rights’ demanding equality of status and reserved seats. Although they faced resistance from their male counterparts, they planted the seeds of political action against the patriarchal structure.

Ra’ana Liaquat Ali, the First Lady (1947-51), actively pursued legal and social reform for women. She founded the All-Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA), giving more structure to the feminist civil society. In 1948, she started the Women’s Voluntary Service, which was welcomed by the government, who saw it as an extension of a woman’s ‘nurturing role’. However, the societal reaction to the setting up in 1949 of the Women’s National Guard and Women’s Naval Reserve differed significantly. These organisations trained women in military tactics, which were believed to be masculine pursuits. This violation of the gender role division met with opposition, and after Ali left to serve as ambassador to the Netherlands, the outfits fizzled out. Nevertheless, Ali was the first woman ambassador of the country. 

In the first Constitution of 1956, women achieved ten reserved seats for a period of ten years. Unfortunately, Ayub Khan’s takeover and martial law in 1958 led to the abrogation of this constitution. In 1965, when Fatima Jinnah, sister of the Founder of Pakistan, rose to challenge Ayub Khan in his Presidential Campaign, he used the Ulema to declare that a woman could not be the head of state in a Muslim country and branded her as unfeminine and un-motherly. She lost under widespread allegations that Khan had tampered with the electoral results.

In the General Election of 1970, won by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, his wife Nusrat Bhutto, had a large role in mobilizing women voters, and this election had the highest female voter  turnout. 11 seats were reserved for women in the National Assembly. However, as the electoral result led to dispute and eventual secession of East Pakistan, the number of reserved seats reduced to 6.  The new Assembly passed the 1973 Constitution, which gave women the most rights to date. It enshrined women’s right of participation in all walks of life and granted 10 reserved seats to women in the National Assembly and 23 in the provincial assemblies for a ten-year period. 

Soon however, General Zia ul-Haq assumed power in a military coup d’état and suspended the 1973 Constitution, launching an Islamization drive characterized by laws detrimental to the status of women. Extramarital sex became punishable by death, chadors in educational institutions became compulsory, women were banned from playing spectator sports, and the family planning programme was suspended.  Zia’s policies triggered a new wave of activism, leading to the formation of Women’s Action Forum (WAF).

Benazir Bhutto takes her oath in 1988 as the first Muslim woman PM. Source: GeoTV

Zia increased constraints on women’s political participation aimed at sidelining Benazir Bhutto as an emerging political force, but to no avail. The 1988 elections brought Benazir Bhutto to power on a wave of popular support. Elected on a general seat, Bhutto became the first and youngest woman Prime Minister of a Muslim majority country. 

Unfortunately, the reserved seats quota lapsed after these elections. Bhutto and three more subsequent elected governments failed to restore the provision. With no quota in place, during most of the 1990s, the National Assembly had up to six women at most. Activists used this decade to lobby for the restoration of an improved quota.

Restoration of Reserved Seats

Aurat Foundation (AF) took the lead in this movement. The proposed Shariat Bill (15th amendment), which would give Nawaz Sharif absolute power, spurred on the movement from fear that previous rights would dissipate. Significant international conferences in the 1990s also pressurized the government. The campaign had prepared thousands of women to be launched into politics through direct local elections. The stage was set for a major policy initiative for women. By the time General Pervez Musharraf came to power in 1999, there was already a political consensus for restoration.

His ordinance in 2000, granted 33 per cent reservation to women in all three tiers of local government. Almost 40,000 women joined local government in 2001, marking a milestone for women’s entry into the political process. Simultaneously, he established a National Commission on the Status of Women. Next in 2002, Musharraf granted 17 per cent reserved seats for women in the National Assembly and Senate, with a 17.6 per cent quota for the provincial assemblies. Musharraf was widely credited with the success, but activists understood it as the culmination of a long campaign. Musharraf abruptly halved the number of union council seats in 2004, drastically reducing representation. One explanation is that the unexpectedly successful participation of women shook the conservatives who saw their political monopoly threatened.

Another success has been the formation of cross-party women’s caucuses within assemblies- enhancing their voice and leveraging their numbers towards achieving positive legislation. Pakistani women as legislators have maintained high attendance and contribution to assembly debates, surpassing male counterparts.  Additionally, in 2017, the Elections Act was passed, mandating political parties to grant five per cent of their tickets for general seats to women. Although these require proper implementation, by forcing these heavily masculinized public spaces to concede women’s presence, these changes have had an immediate impact on political life and discourse in Pakistan. 

A long-standing debate still holds relevance, about the sufficiency of quotas. Reservations have led to role model creation, cultural acceptance, public recognition and have encouraged political discourse regarding women’s issues.  However, reasons such as gender-based violence, gender roles, limited public mobility, need for male consent– all contribute to politics remaining a predominantly male domain.

Regardless of the constraints, Pakistani women have been able to establish a certain level of political empowerment. They should continue to move forward with a keen focus on substantive representation and gaining electorate support, to strengthen their position in elected bodies. 

Ritisha Gupta, Advocate, Women for Politics

Ritisha is a third-year undergraduate of Political Science (Hons.) at Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi. She is an avid reader and her interest areas include international relations and public policy.  She hopes to be a part of the movement to change the perception of women in politics.

She can be reached on LinkedIn here.


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