By Huma Yusuf
LONDON – Few female candidates ran for seats in the by-elections for provincial and National Assembly seats in Pakistan last Thursday, let alone won. Similarly, after the country’s general elections in May 2013, the number of women holding contested National Assembly seats fell from 16 to 6.
To international observers, the numbers may make Pakistani women appear as passive observers in the country’s political landscape, complacent with the status quo. But the story of Pakistani women’s political participation is more complex. Today more Pakistani women than ever are seeking a political role notwithstanding factors preventing their participation.
Despite threats from extremist groups, the number of women campaigning for seats in the national and provincial assemblies during May’s elections soared to more than 450. This is up from approximately 200 in 2008, when the last general elections were held.
Moreover, women from increasingly diverse backgrounds are choosing to enter electoral races.
For example, 53-year-old Badam Zari, a housewife from Bajaur Agency, made history by becoming the first female candidate to run for office from the tribal region along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
Similarly, Veero Kolhi, a former landless bonded laborer and member of the marginalized Hindu community, ran as an independent in Hyderabad and logged more than 6,000 votes.
In some areas, women political campaigners maintaining low profiles filled in for high-profile male politicians who couldn’t assemble meetings or greet people due to threats on their lives. Instead, women campaigned in private spaces like people’s homes, and in general enjoyed more public mobility campaigning because they was no precedent of them doing so and they were not suspected.
According to Bushra Gohar, the Vice President of the Awami National Party (ANP), which was targeted by the Taliban throughout the election campaign due to the party’s secular agenda, female political campaigners “played a fearless and effective role leading campaigns by organizing corner meetings and going door-to-door to engage voters in districts where men were restricted by the Taliban’s threats.”
The female voter turnout during the general elections was also unprecedented. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) registered 37.6 million female voters – two million more than in 2008 – and more than half of them cast ballots in May.
This voter turnout is particularly remarkable given the discouraging environment in which many women had to vote. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, for example, political parties reached informal agreements with local tribal councils that effectively barred women from voting. The same occurred in Thursday’s by-elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, but this time Chief Justice of the Peshawar High Court responded by withholding election results and ordering the arrest of those responsible for the obstruction.
More can still be done for women’s participation.
Most champions of greater female political participation in Pakistan point to political parties as an important reason for the dismal representation, arguing that some do not create opportunities for women’s involvement. “Political parties need to assume a greater role in awarding tickets to women on general [National Assembly] seats and providing support during the process,” said Gohar.
While some political parties, including the religious party Jamaat e-Islami and the secular Muttahida Qaumi Movement, have large, well-organised women’s wings, many major national parties don’t prioritise women’s involvement in politics.
Only 36 of the 108 women contesting general elections for National Assembly seats this year were party-ticket holders due to the parties’ lack of confidence in female candidates. Without party support, many women ran as independent candidates.
Some wonder if the current Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government will seek to improve women’s political participation during their tenure. It would be in the interest of parties to field more female candidates receptive to women’s issues considering Pakistani women are becoming quite educated, comprise 50 percent of the population and are emerging as a prominent voting bloc.
While there is a scarcity of women in key ministries right now, the ruling PML-N government has vowed to hold local government elections during its tenure. Local elections (not held during the last government’s tenure) have previously provided opportunities for women to enter politics and assume leadership positions at all levels of government. That said, decisions by provincial assemblies to conduct local government elections on a party basis could provide a much-needed boost to women’s political participation, especially their induction into mainstream political parties.
In Gohar’s words, “Women are ready for politics provided political parties don’t restrict their opportunities.” Given the significant increase in female voters and candidates, it is my hope that Pakistan adapts to take advantage of women’s clear growing desire for enfranchisement.
* Huma Yusuf is a columnist for the Pakistani newspaper Dawn and was the 2010-11 Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. www.commongroundnews.org