Thursday, March 25, 2010
Women in Parliament in Pakistan: Problems and Potential Solutions
Since the inception of parliamentary form of government, women’s political participation and representation in
decision-making institutions has remained minimal irrespective of the fact that women constitute more than half
of the world population today. With the passage of time there is an increased awareness that emergence of a gender-
balanced society for addressing issues of status of women can only be realized by encouraging enhanced participation
of women in decision and policy making institutions in general and politics and legislature in particular.
In different regions of the world there are considerable variations in the political participation of women. This paper,
with a focus on South Asia, analyzes the factors, which have contributed to the increasing number of women
in legislatures in different regions of the world, and presents the case of Pakistan. The focus of this research is
on the role of Pakistani women in the political arena. Throughout the history of Pakistan, the 2002 and present
parliament has shown the maximum representation of women. The study observes how this numerical strength
in parliament has contributed to the empowerment of Pakistani women and whether women are the ‘subjects of
change’ or the ‘agents of change’ and if these changes are brought about by women themselves or being launched
by some exogenous factors?
Women face obstacles to their political participation all over the world. Socio-economic factors
as well as existing structures are considered as barriers to their advancement. In 2008, the
rate of female representation stood at 17.7% globally. This minimal representation shows that
women have to cover a long distance for the ideal parity in politics. There is need of full and
equal participation of women in policy making in order to promote gender fair government.
Efforts are being made to increase women’s participation through legislative measures like
gender quotas which are being implemented at a remarkable rate all over the world.
Gender quotas are increasingly viewed as an important policy measure for boosting women’s
access to decision-making bodies. The basic purpose of a quota system is to recruit women
into a political position in order to limit their isolation in politics. Quotas are applied as temporary
measures until the barriers for women’s political participation are removed. Many developing
countries have legislated quotas at the national or sub-national level to ensure gender
fair government while in many developed countries, political parties have voluntarily adopted
some form of quotas. At the same time quotas raise serious question about the contribution of
quotas to the political empowerment of women as quotas themselves do not remove all the barriers.
It seems important that quotas rest on grass root mobilization of women and the active
participation of women’s organization.
In Pakistan, women’s quotas have enlarged the component of women’s status in post 9/11
political developments. This change is visible as the political power has passed from fathers
to daughters instead of sons only. The significance of this study stems from the fact that women’s
political presence is influenced by domestic vis-à-vis global trends. The political uplift
of women lacks an economic base and seems non-indigenous. Women are tolerated as long
as they do not challenge their male colleagues- so while they are in parliament, they have little
power to achieve change. This research intends to highlight that the engenderment of the political system of Pakistan lacks a socio-political base, and therefore need to be indigenously
developed. The numerical strength of women in legislation is not an indicator of quality but
their impact and effectiveness makes a difference.
The status of women in Pakistan is heterogeneous owing to uneven socioeconomic development
in the rural and urban region. Generally, women’s situation vis-à-vis men is of systematic
subordination. Men and women’s activities are divided into outside and inside home. Therefore,
women’s mobility is restricted and controlled. Men are given better education to compete
for resources outside the home. This situation has led to dependency of women and becomes
the basis for male power in social, economic and political spheres.
Women do not have a role in the formulation of economic and social policies. Their exclusion
from decision-making bodies does not provide them any opportunity to raise their concern
or to promote their participation in politics. Governance systems in Pakistan are male dominated.
It is imperative for women to claim their share of power to make decisions for political
The constitution of Pakistan places no restrictions on women’s participation in politics; nevertheless
their presence in the political parties as well as in the political structure at the local,
provincial and national level remains insignificant due to cultural and structural barriers. The
General elections of 2002 saw an unprecedented increase in the number of reserved seats for
women in the parliament of Pakistan. This paper will analyze the political participation of
women in parliament and whether numerical strength has contributed to women’s empowerment.
It will cover the issues of women’s participation and major concerns associated with
the representation of women in legislature. There is a need to assess the impact of increased
representation of women in the parliament and evaluate the female legislature’s performance to
derive lessons for the future.
Women in parliament
Ever since the days of Plato and Aristotle, women’s role in society and their nature have been
objects of speculation within philosophical, religious and political thought. The household,
both in Athenian society and in the western agricultural society, was the economic nucleus of
the communal structure and therefore the status of women had a given place in discussions
about the nature of society. A woman was defined principally in relation to the family and she
was seen as innately inferior to man. According to Aristotle, “With regard to the differences
between the sexes, man is by nature superior and leading, woman inferior and led” (Jonasdottir,
With the growth of modern society and industrialization the family and the relationships
between men and women were relegated to the private sphere and politics was defined with
regard to the new, public sphere (Jonasdottir, 1998). With the passage of time women’s suffrage
started. The term women’s suffrage is a social, economic and political reform movement
aimed at extending suffrage - the right to vote - to women. New Zealand was the first to give
women the right to vote. However when this happened in 1893 it was not a “country”, in the
sense of being an independent nation state, but a mostly self-governing colony. The first women’s
suffrage was granted in New Jersey by the state constitution of 1776. Finland was the first
European country to introduce women’s suffrage in 1906, Norway in 1913, Canada in 1917,
German and Poland in 1918, America in 1920 and Turkey in 1926.
As modern ideas of women’s liberation are being articulated ever more clearly, there is a
strong realization that since women constitute slightly more than half of the world population,
and their contribution to the societal and economic development of societies is also more than half as compared to that of men by virtue of their dual roles in the productive and reproductive
spheres. Yet their participation in formal political structures and processes, where decisions
regarding the use of societal resources generated by both men and women are made, remains
insignificant (Bari, 2005). With increasing recognition among the international community of
women’s historic exclusion from structures of power, a global commitment has been made to
redress gender imbalance in politics. Women’s enhanced participation in governance structures
is viewed as the key to redress gender inequalities in societies (Bari, 2005).
At the global level, the average percentage of women stands at 18.4%.
Representation of women in parliaments - World average
House or chamber Average percentage of women
Lower house 18.5%
Upper house 17.6%
Both houses combined 18.4%
Source www.ipu.org/wmn-e/world.sep2008.htm (accessed on 20th Dec 2008).
Significant differences exist between regions regarding women’s representation. The Nordic
countries have the highest number of women parliamentarians while the Arab states have
the lowest and within regions this representation varies among nations.
Regional average Lower house Upper house Both houses
Nordic Countries 41.4% - 41.4%
Americas 21.7% 20.1% 21.4%
21.1% 19.9% 20.9%
Sub-Saharan Africa1∗ 17.9% 20.6% 18.2%
Asia 18.3% 16.5% 18.1%
Pacific 12.9% 13.8% 14.9%
Arab States 9.7% 7.0% 9.1%
Source http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/world.sep2008.htm. (Accessed on 20th Dec 2008)
Feminist organizations throughout the world view the Scandinavian countries, Denmark,
Finland, Norway and Sweden, as a model for women’s equality. One key factor has been the
very high representation that women have enjoyed in parliaments and local councils in these
countries especially since the 1970’s (Dahlerup, 2006).
The extraordinary high representation of women, as demonstrated in the above table, seen
in a global perspective has led to the question: How did you come that far? What can we learn
from the Scandinavian experience? As Nordic researchers have tried to answer these questions
by pointing to structural changes in these countries such as secularization, the strength of social-
democratic parties and the development of an extended welfare state, women’s entrance
into the labor market in large numbers in the 1960’s, the educational boom in the 1960’s, the
electoral system and several other factors are also seen as important, especially the various
strategies used by women’s organizations in the Nordic countries in order to raise women’s
political representation (Dahlerup, 2006).
Women in the Nordic region had to fight for their rights and for their place not only in parliament
but within political parties as well. For a long time women’s relative absence from
party politics was explained, both within research and among politicians, with reference to
a shortage of suitable women. While feminist research has questioned that perspective and
stressed the problem lies with the political system not with the women (Jonasdottir, 1998).
In analyzing how the increase in women’s representation came about and the reasons for the
adaptation of quotas it is clear that an egalitarian culture played a very important role. An important
part of the explanation for the relative success of women in the political sphere is connected
to existing political institutions. Women, by and large, made an explicit decision to stay
and work within existing political parties. They did not leave and establish separate political
organizations. The candidate selection procedure placed an emphasis on group representation
as women make 50 percent as a group. In short, the institutional arrangements played a crucial
role in assisting women in their fight for greater representation. Greater women’s political participation
in this region is an inspiration to many women around the world who are fighting for
greater access to political power (Matland, 2004).
In Europe representation of women in legislation is 19.3%. If we look at Europe, quotas
are rather unpopular, except in the Balkans. In Western Europe, quotas mainly take the form
of voluntary party quotas, Belgium and France being the exceptions. In Central and Eastern
Europe very few political parties have approved quota regulations and no legal gender quota
regulations for parliament are in place. Analysis of quota reveals that resistance to quotas in
Western Europe is connected primarily to the belief that quotas are in conflict with the concept
of liberal democracy and the principle of merit (Dahlerup, 2006).
In Sub-Saharan Africa, the increase in women’s participation in the past few years has been
greater than ever in the past four decades showing ten-fold to over 14 percent in 2003. Gender
quotas are now increasingly viewed as an important policy measure for boosting women’s
access to decision-making bodies throughout the world. The experience from Africa is very
encouraging. Over 20 countries on the continent have either legislated quotas or political parties
have adopted them voluntarily. These measures have contributed directly to the increase in the number of women who have access to the legislature: the average representation of women
in Sub-Saharan Africa in 1995 was 9.8% (Ballington, 2004), which has increased to 18.2% in
Asia, with 18.3 percent representation of women in legislatures, is nearly equal to the world
average. Asia is an interesting region in terms its experimentation with quotas, providing some
of the earliest examples in the world. Pakistan implemented ‘reservations’ as far back as 1956,
and Bangladesh implemented reserved seats for women in the 1970’s. Today, constitutional
quotas exist in India and previously in Bangladesh, and legislated quotas are implemented in
Pakistan, Indonesia and China. This region has shown a tendency for legislated quota provisions
rather than leaving it for political parties to implement their own informal party quotas,
as is common in Western Europe and parts of Africa. There is also a tendency for quotas to take
the form of reserved seats, a popular method of quota implementation in first-part-the-post systems,
which tend to predominate in the region (IDEA, 2004).
In South Asia, the maximum number of female leaders has emerged. Benazir Bhutto of
Pakistan, Indira Gandhi of India, Khalida Zia and Hasina Wajid of Bangladesh and Sirivamo
Bandranaika and Chandrika Kumaratunga of Sri Lanka are some of the more prominent among
them. The general level of political participation among South Asian women does not reflect
a similar trend. Political participation is often limited by constraints laid on their mobility and
roles based on the socio-cultural perceptions. South Asia has been slow in political empowerment
and representation of its women (Rustagi, 2004).
In India, there is a continued dominance of the upper class in education, administration and
structures of government. The eighty-fourth constitution Amendment Bill meant to provide
one-third reservation of seats to women in states and central legislative bodies and the controversies
around it mirror the contradictions of Indian society (Raman, 2002).
The protagonists of the Bill highlight the traditionally sanctioned exclusion of women from
the public sphere as crucial. Undoubtedly, women’s suppression, in history, has been very important
in maintaining upper-class exclusivity and hegemony. Affirmative action for women
would certainly play a role in undermining male and upper-caste dominance. There is also a
strong resistance on the part of a considerable number of political leaders to ‘encroachments’into what has been a traditionally male preserve. The media has characterized the debate as a
battle between ‘feminists’ and ‘casteists’ (Raman, 2002).
In India, the 73rd and 74th amendments passed in 1992 have been instrumental in ensuring
a strong representation of women in local government institutions for women in local government
and the provision for one third chair persons to be from among the women but there is
no reservation of seats for women either in the State Legislative Assembly nor in parliament at
the national level. The demand for reservation in the parliament by women’s groups has raised
many eyebrows and severe criticism. Many times the bill was taken in parliament but failed.
Women activists wanted to get this bill passed before the elections to the state assemblies
and parliament to be held by the end of 2008. At least once a year a few members of parliament
debate the need to reserve 33 percent of seats for women. The bill comes up when the parliament
convenes but soon gets shelved with all the ensuing acrimony (Times of India: 2008).
In the case of Sri Lanka, women who have a presence in parliament are there by virtue of
a kinship tie to a father, brother, or husband, who, in most cases was assassinated. One of the
most critical barriers for Sri Lankan women is the fear of violence that has become associated
with the political process. Another problem that is directly related to roles and a division of labor
based on gender is the shortage of time women face when they shoulder responsibility for
maintaining a household and generating income. Another is a shortage of resources. They do
not have access to property or to other income resources. They often lack mobility, and there is
frequently a problem with social acceptance. It is a bit ironic that men say politics is inappropriate
for women because it is often violent, thus providing justification for excluding women
In the October 2000 election, there were 22 political parties and 91 independent groups,
which were able to field only 117 women in a total of 5,048 candidates. In the recently dissolved
parliament of 2001, at the National level (2000) there were only 9 women in the parliament
of 225 members (4%). In Sri Lanka reserved seats have never been accepted (Ghimir,
At the same time, women who entered the arena of politics remained divided according to
their political loyalties, and they did not unite as one voice when concerns regarding women
became a matter of importance. Women politicians at almost every level supported their political
affiliations rather than planning and working for the common good of women (Abhayaratna:
In 1990 when Nepal restored parliamentary democracy, a constitutional mandate was passed
to ensure the participation of women in the national election. As a result, 5 percent of all candidates
who seek seats in the House of Representatives are reserved for women. Then, prior to
local elections in 1997, the government passed an act that required 20 percent of the elected
seats in the Village Development Committees (VCD) to be set aside for women elected to each
of the nine wards that comprised a VCD. Partly as a result of this ruling, 35,000 women have
won seats at the ward level. A number of women also have been assigned sets in an effort to
further their political participation (Andrews, 1999).
However, women political leaders have resented the failure of the political parties to accord
the mandated number of seats for women in contesting the constituent Assembly polls in 2008
according to the Law of the Land. Though the political parties have rightfully allocated 50 %
of the seats for women according to the proportional mode of elections, they have failed to
fulfill the requirement while fielding candidates for the first-past-the-post system that gives an
opportunity for the electorate to vote for the candidates in direct term. The interim constitution
of Nepal has already guaranteed 33% reservation to women in the national parliament (The
Rising Nepal: 2008).
In the case of Bangladesh, the constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh provides
for a 300-member parliament (Jatiyo Sangsad). Earlier, the parliament comprised a total of 315
seats out of which 15 were reserved for women for a period of 10 years. Members elected to
parliament from the 300 ‘general’ seats represent single-member territorial constituencies that
both men and women are eligible to contest. The 15 reserved seats for women were indirectly
elected. Members elected to general seats constituted the college for reserved seats (Chowdhury,
In 1978 a presidential proclamation increased the number of reserved seats to 30 (increasing
women’s minimum guaranteed representation in legislature from 4.7% to 9.9%) and extended
the period of reservation to 15 years from the date of promulgation of the constitution of the
Republic in December 1972. This constitutional provision lapsed in December 1987 and was
reincorporated in the constitution by an amendment in 1990 to be effective for another 10
years. Since this provision lapsed in 2001, the present parliament does not have seats reserved
for women, as was the case with the House elected in 1988 (Chowdhury, 2002).
Since no measures have been taken to encourage the role of women in political parties,
this approach to reserved seats has left the entire electoral field open to male domination and
control. Bangladesh’s experiences with quotas for women in the parliament have been largely
negative. Instead of contributing to women’s political agency and autonomy, it accentuated
their dependence in politics and reinforced their marginality (Chowdhury, 2002).
After the declaration of emergency on January 17, 2007, the emerging dialogue between the
Election Commission and the major political parties has encouraged the shift in the focus of
the military-driven interim government towards holding the general elections as expeditiously
as possible. The Election commission has proposed to include at least 33 percent of women
in all committees of the political parties which seems to be unacceptable for political parties
(New Age: 2007).
Bhutan is one of the few countries where there are no political parties. However, at the
district and village levels there are established mechanisms that foster people’s active participation
in the policy making process. Women in Bhutan enjoy economic and political equality
with the men. Bhutanese women are free to participate in the formulation and implementation
of policies and programs. At the national level, 14 out of the 150 National Assembly members
are women (Ghimir, 2006).
Women are noticeable by their absence in the higher levels of the decision-making system,
with just 3% representation in the recently dissolved National Assembly and 1% among the
rural leadership. Women who are attending political meetings these days are mostly pledging
their loyalties to the parties and not based on woman’s issues. They have a strong say in all
decisions concerning the family and the community but have not emerged as visible public
figures (Kuensel: 2007).
The political system of Maldives is quite different to that of the rest of the South Asian
countries. There is no special quota system in the parliament. In the absence of constitutional
barriers to women’s participation in top management, the main constraint to women’s access
to this position is the attitude of women themselves. The culture of female subordination has
been so deeply rooted that women generally believe that they are less capable than their male
counterparts. At present women’s participation at the parliament is 6.3% (Ghimir, 2006).
The Pakistan Experience
Women undoubtedly played a significant role in the creation of Pakistan. The founder of the
country, Quaid-i-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah, was responsible for bringing Muslim women out of their homes to participate in the movement for Pakistan. He is on record for saying that
the emancipation of Muslim men is not possible unless Muslim women are involved in this
struggle as equal partners. When the movement for creation of Pakistan gathered momentum,
Muslim women came out on the streets and were active in the demonstrations and agitations
that took place for independence (Saiyid, 2001). Quaid-i-Azam appointed a Central Women’s
Committee with Fatima Jinnah as president with instructions to allocate women’s quota in the
Muslim League. The Quaid-i-Azam stated on 18th April 1946, at the Muslim Convention in
Delhi: “It is a matter of great happiness that Muslim women are also undergoing a revolutionary
change. This change is of great importance. No nation in the world can progress until its
women walk side by side with the men”.
What the Quaid had achieved was unprecedented, and amounted to a social revolution. The
cultural norms of the Muslims of the Indian sub-continent discouraged women from going out
of their homes, and at the time it was unthinkable for women to venture out of their homes for
political purposes. The constant presence of Fatima Jinnah, the Quaid’s sister, was not accidental,
but a message by this visionary leader, that women should be equal partners in politics, and
that they should not be confined to the traditional home-bound role of a wife and a mother. It is
not surprising then that he was constantly under attack by the orthodox religious parties. Once,
so the story goes, he was about to address a mammoth public meeting, and was requested not
to have Fatima Jinnah sitting on the dais by his side. He refused (Saiyid, 2001).
Despite the vision of the father of the nation, the representation of women in the National
Assembly of Pakistan has been varying since 1947. The constitution of 1956 and 1962 provided
for 6 reserved seats for women in the National Assembly, while the 1973 constitution
reserved 10 seats for women. Later these seats were increased to 20 in 1985(ADB, 1999). In
2002 these seats have been revived and increased to sixty by the government of General Pervez
Musharaf (PILDAT, 2004).
1 Constitutional Quota (1947-2008)
In view of women’s invisibility in national politics, the provision of women’s reserved seats in
parliament existed throughout the constitutional history of Pakistan from 1956 to 1973. In the
1956 constitution, 3 percent quota for women was approved. The 1956 constitution under Article
44(2) (1) provided for reservation of 10 seats for women for a period of 10 years, equally
divided between East and West Pakistan (PILDAT, 2004). The first election under the 1973
constitution was held in 1977 but assemblies were dissolved within months of the election
with the imposition of Martial Law in July 1977. In 1981, General Zia ul Haq nominated the
Majlis-e-Shoora (Federal Advisory Council) and inducted 20 women as members. The Majlise-
Shoora was a step towards Zia’s idea of Islamic democracy: however, it had no power over
the executive branch. A military head whose function seemed to keep out all empowermentseeking
women effectively contained the Women Ministry (Sedeque, 2005).
In 1985, the National Assembly elections, through nonparty elections, doubled women’s
reserved quota to (20%). The 1988 elections were held with provisions for women’s seats remaining
the same as in 1985. This provision expired before the 1990 elections and has not
been revived since then, despite commitments by both major political parties in their election
manifestos that they would do so (Zia, 1999). Currently 60 seats are reserved for women in the
Pakistan National Assembly. Presently a total of 71 women have obtained representation at the
national level, 60 on reserved seats and 11 on general seats. Women occupy a total of 128 seats
in provincial Assemblies. In local government presently 33% seats are reserved for women.