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Islam, Women and Feminism ( 4 Aug 2009, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Pakistan’s Women legislators: how have they performed?

By Nirupama Subramanian

Posted July 29, 2009

As Indian legislators recently scrabbled over the proposed reservation of 33 per cent parliamentary seats for women, this was one area in which Pakistan, where democracy is still no more than a struggling infant with an uncertain future, could look at its eastern neighbour with confidence and say: “Been there, done that”.

In fact, Pakistan did it as far back as in 2001-2002. The present Parliament, formed after the February 2008 elections, is the second to have reserved seats for women. The quota is not the ideal one-third, but 17 per cent in the National Assembly and the Senate, the lower and upper houses respectively, and in the provincial Assemblies.

Unlike in India, where debate still rages over an acceptable mechanism for the reservation for women, in Pakistan women in the reserved seats are not directly elected. Each party gets to nominate a certain number of women proportionate to the number of seats they won through elections. Women also enter the National Assembly through elections for the general seats.

In the current Parliament, there are 75 women in the 342-seat National Assembly — 60 through the quota and 15 in general seats. At nearly 22 per cent, this is better than any other Asian democracy and is more than several western democracies, including the United Kingdom and the United States.

But how have these women MNAs (Members of National Assembly) performed? While they stream in and out of the House in a haze of stylish chiffons and pashminas, the latest designer sunglasses perched over their blonde highlights, have they achieved anything? What kind of issues have they raised? Have they been effective, and indeed, what does an “effective” woman parliamentarian mean — one who raises women’s issues, one who raises all issues, or one who stands loyally by her political party, even if it means opposing pro-women legislation?

In April this year, these questions came to a head as the National Assembly debated the infamous Nizam-e-Adl regulations, a system of sharia courts introduced in Swat and other areas of the North-West Frontier Province to appease the Taliban. Only two parliamentarians spoke out against it. Both were men. Only on day-two of the debate did Sherry Rehman of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party — perhaps shamed by outrage among women activists at the silence of women MNAs — rise to express her opposition to the regulations. No other female voice was heard during the debate despite its importance for Pakistani women and for the future of Pakistan itself.

While this episode stands out in recent memory and speaks for itself, two recently published studies that evaluated the women’s quota and the performance of those who benefited by it, indicate it is by no means conclusive.

“Role and Performance Assessment of Pakistani Women Parliamentarians” was carried out by Farzana Bari, who heads the Gender Studies department at Quaid-e-Azam University, in association with Pattan, a non-governmental organisation that builds awareness of governance issues among marginalised communities. Ms Bari has a long track record in the women’s rights movement in Pakistan. The second study, “Performance of Women Parliamentarians in the 12th National Assembly (2002-2007),” was done by Naeem Mirza and Wasim Wagha for the Aurat Foundation, a major NGO that has worked to empower Pakistani women since 1986.

Both reach the same conclusion: it is better to have a quota for women in Parliament than not; and, though there are several problems associated with it, it has contributed to a greater understanding of the need for women to play a role in politics and set the stage for meaningful participation of women in politics in the coming years.

The statistics are interesting. According to the Aurat Foundation, the 73 women members in the last Parliament moved 42 per cent of the private member bills and 27 per cent of the total number of questions. There were 3,698 interventions by women legislators; they asked 2,724 questions; participated in debates 380 times; raised 306 points of order; moved 101 private member’s Bills, 99 calling attention notices, and 69 adjournments and privilege motions.

In comparison with their male colleagues, women raised 27 per cent of all questions, 30 per cent of calling attention motions, 42 per cent of private member bills, 24 per cent of the total number of resolutions, and eight per cent of all adjournment and privilege motions. On the whole, they were more regular in attending sessions than their male counterparts.

According to Ms. Bari’s more detailed study, women’s issues were in third place in the interventions by women parliamentarians. From demanding a reduction in defence spending to provincial autonomy, independence of the judiciary, questioning Pakistan’s nuclear and Kashmir policies, women MNAs raised all issues on the floor of the House. When it came to legislation though, the private member bills they moved were mainly for new laws for protecting women against domestic violence, for reproductive rights, for changes to the anti-women Hudood laws, against honour killing practices such as karo-kari and other crimes rooted in anti-women traditions.

However — and this is where the studies point out the need to go beyond numbers — most women MNAs were not effective in pushing their bills. One reason was the overall inefficiency of the last Parliament. But women did not make efforts to lobby effectively for their bills; and at times, did not even discuss them with their own party members or leaders. Ms Bari is of the view that this indicated a “non-serious” attitude among women parliamentarians.

Sometimes, women MNAs of different parties submitted similar bills. There was little effort to combine forces, even though they did come together in isolated instances such as the government-sponsored amendments to soften the draconian Hudood Ordinance. Additionally, women MNAs had no technical knowhow or party support in the drafting of their bills. Over 57 per cent of the MNAs surveyed in Ms Bari’s study mentioned drafting of legislation as their top training priority.

But the systemic challenges that Pakistan’s women parliamentarians face are bigger — a patriarchal society in which political power is often hereditary. Compounding this is the indirect election of women in the gender quota, which keeps them away from mainstream politics and limits their participation. They are nominated to Parliament entirely on goodwill. Lacking a power base, they have little influence on their parties or leaders in order to raise issues.

Not surprisingly, like their elected sisters, most of the nominated women belong to powerful feudal or urban elite families in which the men — their fathers, brothers or husbands — are politicians and are allied to one or another party. This happens even as women activists swell the ranks of political parties.

Certainly women parliamentarians have not been able to bring about any significant change in the status of women. Still, the verdict of both studies is that the unprecedented number of women parliamentarians after 2002 had a big impact on positively shaping public perceptions of women’s role in politics. Ms Bari says it was one reason for the extraordinarily high number of women — 180 to be precise — who contested elections for general seats in the 2008 elections.

Women in this Parliament also seem more determined to put up a better show than in the previous one. In November 2008, they joined hands across party lines to form a women parliamentarians’ caucus under the stewardship of Speaker Fehmida Mirza, who, incidentally, is a directly elected MNA.

It is, of course, an irony that the gender quota was introduced under the watch of a military ruler, the still reviled Pervez Musharraf. Prior to that, women never constituted more than 3 per cent of any Pakistani Parliament. The parliamentarians are now debating Mr. Musharraf’s changes to the Constitution, made under the omnibus 17th Amendment, and which of these changes to keep and which to throw out. Even though not a single woman MNA is on this parliamentary committee, it can be said with certainty that the women’s quota will stay. And women’s rights groups will keep up the battle to raise it to the globally recommended 33 per cent.

Source: The Hindu Daily