Women were given space in the Pakistan senate in 1974 but it was not until the 1980s that their numbers rose in significant manner. The female representatives in the Senate were handpicked and mostly apolitical women.
Over time, women acquired more space in the Senate. Today the Senate has to have a minimum of 17 women, four from each of the four provinces and one female representative from Islamabad. But while the numbers may have grown, the central problem of selection based on family ties and dynastic politics, has remained.
Of the eight women who won the Senate election this month, seven are backed by political families. This problem stems from the design and implementation of reserved seats for women in the Senate.
“While the idea of reserved seats for women is good in that it allows women to be included in legislative and parliamentary systems, the way the system is designed and implemented leads to certain problems,” says Aban Haq, who has just completed her M.Phil dissertation on female parliamentarians from the Oxford University.
The first of these issues is that since political parties know that women will be represented through reserved seats, they are de-incentivised to give women nomination tickets for the Senate’s general seats. Thereby, the culture of competing with a holistic pool is not created, and women are only competing with women.
An illustration of this problem can be seen in this month’s Senate elections where 23 of the 25 female candidates contested for reserved seats. Only two women contested against men, one for a technocrat seat and one for a general seat.
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Because these female senators didn’t compete with men to get their seats, they often are not given the respect or authority that their male counterparts are given, says Haq, citing the second problem. “These women are considered as second-class legislators. They are regarded as ‘someone’s wife, sister, mother’ and hence treated like token representatives,” she says.
A little over a month ago, Senator Mufti Abdul Sattar of the JUI-F targeted MQM Senator, Nasreen Jalil, with a sexist remark about her clothes. Senator Jalil was chairing a session of the Senate’s Functional Committee on Human Rights when Senator Sattar said that an “able and intellectual” woman like her should have an “appearance like Muslims”.
Sexist treatment like this exists despite the fact that female senators fill the ‘top rung’ of female politicians. Political parties have three areas of reserved seats for women that they need to fill: at the provincial level, at the national level and in the Senate. Local party workers are most often placed in the provincial assembly — according to Haq, because there is less visibility there. The highest seats for women, the Senate’s reserved seats, are given to highly educated, and often alienated from society, family members. This is why Krishna Kumari’s senatorship has left everyone surprised. A Dalit woman with no political dynasty behind her making her way to the Senate is unprecedented.
The third issue Haq highlights is that given these women don’t have electoral constituencies, who are they serving? “The women don’t need the public opinion or public votes to retain their positions. All they need is party leadership,” she says.
In order to keep their constituency and the party leadership happy, women senators treat the Senate as their field and do bring about legislations to the Senate. That, in itself, is a good thing.
But the problem is that these legislations are top down, instead of being bottom up. “The agendas they pursue are not based on people’s demands, but on what party leadership or the development establishment desires,” says Haq.
She adds the problem of female seats in the Senate begins from the assemblies and their reserved seats. Many senators are members or ministers of the parliament on reserved seats. “When the pool from which senators are chosen has no links to the ground, then how can we expect senators to have links to the ground,” she asks.