Fighting elections and gender inequality at the same time in Pakistan

Pakistani women have been striving for rights and representation along the history of Pakistan’s politics. What has been progress towards more gender equality? What could be the way to overcome patriarchy in politics? Find the answers with Nida Usman Chaudhary.

Nida Usman Chaudhary is the author of a recent paper titled Patriarchy in Politics and Political Parties in Pakistan, commissioned by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. She spoke with FES about the dynamics of patriarchy across various government levels, the reasons for such patterns, and how they can be addressed in a constructive manner.


What is the situation in Pakistan?

Despite its numerous national and international commitments, Pakistan ranks second worst, better only than Afghanistan, on the Gender Gap Index in the 2022 World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report. Even though Pakistan ranks 95th in that same Index out of 146 in terms of women’s political empowerment it remains a country in which women have the smallest share of senior, managerial and legislative roles, at 4.5 per cent.

This is telling, given that Pakistani women have been striving for rights and representation since before partition from India and independence from British colonial rule, in 1947. In the Roundtable Conferences of the 1930s, women had called for a 10 per cent quota in the assemblies. In 1954, at the final meeting of the first constituent assembly of Pakistan, the quota conceded was only 3 per cent. Today, women constitute nearly half of the population of Pakistan, but they comprise only 20 per cent of the National Assembly. Of those 70 women 60 are in the seats reserved for women and religious minorities (by appointment), while only 10 women, just 3 per cent of parliamentarians, have been elected to a general seat.

The state of representation of women within political parties, at the national and provincial levels, is also dismal. A close look reveals that without affirmative action, there would be little to no representation of women within the political parties or in the assemblies—only 9 per cent of women across those different levels of government are members of the assemblies on a general seat.


Are reserved seats for women in parliament and quotas for female candidates a way to achieve more gender equality in politics?

The reserved seat quota system was expected to eventually lead to women competing equally and successfully for general seats without the need for affirmative action. However, the 2018 general election saw diminishing success among women for the general seats. Women have succeeded in efforts to secure the quota in law that compels political parties to give 5 per cent of their respective tickets to female candidates for the general seats, in addition to the reserved seats. Nonetheless, women’s access and advancement in politics is dependent upon men deciding to support them. Even the reserved seats are filled on the basis of a priority list submitted by parties—led by men—to the Election Commission, in proportion to their party’s victory with the general seats. These lists mainly consist of the kin of the male leadership. Women contesting the general seats under the 5-per-cent law find their connections can determine their chances of success: Female members of the party leaders’ family are often put forward in constituencies that are party strongholds. Other, less connected female candidates on the general ticket often end up running in constituencies where they are more likely to lose. As a result, while affirmative action in the shape of reserved seats is one way to achieve greater numbers of women in the assemblies, it can definitely benefit from a revision in the way it is structured to enable intersectional representation that can lead to greater gender equality in politics.

Have you seen any progress towards more gender equality in Pakistan’s politics in the past?

The establishment of the non-partisan Women’s Parliamentary Caucus has been a great platform in the country’s parliamentary history for rights of marginalized persons in Pakistan. It was set up in 2008 by a resolution of the National Assembly under the leadership of Fehmida Mirza, who has been one of the few female members of the parliament to have also served as the speaker of the National Assembly. Not only has the caucus enabled female parliamentarians to come together for their collective issues and challenges, it has also enabled them to develop pro-women laws in consultation with leading activists from the women’s movement in Pakistan. They have been able to spearhead, develop consensus over and push forward bills for child-friendly, women-friendly and otherwise progressive laws. Women who have served in constitutional roles, such as speakers or as parliamentary secretaries or heads of other committees within the assemblies, have also been able to play their part effectively for pushing gender equality and progressive laws in Pakistan. The collective efforts of women also enabled them to ensure that political parties were compelled to award at least 5 per cent of the general-seat tickets to female members. Although the process of allotment of such tickets needs more democratization, it is still a step forward for gender equality in Pakistan’s politics.


If we can take a step back for a minute, what do we mean by patriarchy?

The term “patriarchy” was originally used to describe households dominated by a male figurehead and where decisions about everyday facets of life, such as education and marriage, were made by the men. These dynamics are reinforced through culture, norms, religion, education and even laws.

The control of men over decisions and access to resources did not remain within the private sphere alone, rather, it led to their control of resources and positions in the public sphere as well. Access to better nutrition at home, to better schooling and education as well as more freedom of mobility in the society enabled men to work in various fields outside the home and capture senior leadership positions in diverse sectors, including the justice and policy sectors. This included the political arena as well as the executive, legislative and judicial organs of the state. Consequently, the social, legal, economic and political structures that emerged were male-centred, male-identified and male-dominated.

What does patriarchy mean in politics, more specifically?

As a system, patriarchy configures social relations between men and women in terms of power dynamics, wherein men wield power and control and women are expected to be subservient and submissive. Patriarchy is also used to set gender roles and determine what an acceptable space, public or private, for each gender ought to be: creating the public/private dichotomy of space and belonging, such that any crossover is more likely to be viewed as an intrusion into the ‘space’ of the other. In that sense, patriarchy appears to have created entitlement of one gender (usually men) to claim public space and role in the society, for instance, that of a “breadwinner” and has relegated the other (usually women) to the private space and role that it considered appropriate, such as a “homemaker”.

With the historical imbalance in the capture of key positions, decision-making roles and resources, both at home and in public, one gender has been able to bargain for itself the ability to cast greater influence and to position itself as a ‘centre of power’ that can address and fulfil the needs of a constituency. Patriarchy has thus influenced the structure, actors and norms of politics, as well as determined the power dynamics therein. Thus, patriarchy affects fair representation of women and other marginalized persons in politics, and hinders intersectional representation in political domain. It also hinders the advancement of women who are in politics, and may make them more susceptible to sexist abuse. This likely aims to reinforce and maintain the status quo of dominance that privileges one gender, by reminding the other that the public space is not their domain and, should they dare cross over, they should be prepared for the consequences.


Which reforms would you recommend to overcome patriarchy in politics?

The deeply entrenched social, economic and other barriers originating from the patriarchal distinctions cannot be addressed through legislation alone; they require more transformative, multisectoral and multidimensional approaches from civil society organizations and other stakeholders. It will require engagement with top leadership; more affirmative action within political parties to increase women’s participation in elections; more structure for appointments to reserved seats; and women’s economic empowerment as well as their increased access to education and networking opportunities. In addition, media and male politicians and other actors within the political sphere would benefit from sensitivity training as well as training on the importance of inclusive policymaking.


Nida Usman Chaudhary is a diversity and inclusion advocate and the founder of Women in Law Initiative Pakistan. As an internationally published author, she has amassed over 14 years of experience in research, law and policy input, teaching, and capacity building. Her areas of focus include access to justice, gender equality and diversity in the justice sector, fair representation, gender-based violence, and child rights. She has an LL.B (Hons) and an LL.M in Law & Development from the University of London.

Interview by: Sidra Saeed, Program Advisor, FES Pakistan

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of FES.

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