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Gender polarisation in Pakistan’s parliament | Shaheen Ashraf Shah

The analysis of the legislative record of the National Assembly of Pakistan in terms of putting legislative interventions, especially after enhanced representation of women in the legislature, reveals marked patterns of polarisation with regard to gender. Firstly, it shows inter-gender polarisation, which means that when compared with male MNAs, a higher proportion of female MNAs are likely to initiate legislative business, despite the fact that women represent only 22 per cent of membership. Secondly, intra-gender polarisation stems from the fact that a limited number of women put forward a disproportionately high number of legislative interventions. If we dig deeper, then findings from several studies also confirm that women who have come into the National Assembly through quotas are more active than directly elected MNAs and that these quota legislators are more likely to put social and women’s issues on the legislative agenda than directly elected male and female MNAs.

So there is no reason to assume that women MNAs, who enter the Pakistani parliament on women reserved seats, will not perform in the legislature. It also highlights the importance of ‘front-runner’ women with outstanding skills, awareness and feminist convictions in pursuing gender equality. They feel that they have been charged with more responsibility when it comes to speaking for other women. Therefore, it is not just the number of women that counts, but also the presence of those women, who have feminist consciousness, skills and awareness. In addition, an enabling environment is also of paramount importance.

Polarisation with regard to gender raises important questions as to why, in particular, the women who have come into the legislature on quota are more active than directly elected MNAs. What makes them work desperately on legislative interventions? In order to examine how women conceive and practise representation in the real world of politics, I interviewed several women parliamentarians of various political parties, including the most active and outstanding of women legislators, for my PhD research project, while maintaining their anonymity.

There are several factors significantly contributing towards the effective role that women have assumed in the legislature. Nonetheless, in face-to-face interviews, the most active women parliamentarians claimed that participating in parliament is one of the ways for MNAs who have come on quotas to show their strength and capabilities to their political parties and leaders. One the one hand, it helps women in building their image as competent politicians, especially  when they are often stigmatised and labelled as second class politicians, reinforcing negative stereotypes about women’s capabilities. On the other hand, these women parliamentarians accepted that their performance within parliament does matter in securing re-selection for parliamentary seats. Interestingly, parliamentary performance is something that actually may not matter as much when it comes to the re-entry of male parliamentarians in the legislature.

As one female MNA said with confidence, “My performance in the previous tenure remained high; I introduced several bills, motions and resolutions. All these were the basis of my re-selection for the second tenure.” Another MNA, who initially started her parliamentary career at the provincial level and was later nominated for a National Assembly women reserved seat, claimed: “I performed a very active role during my tenure in the provincial assembly, greatly strengthening party performance within parliament, which contributed towards my nomination as MNA.” Two more highly active women legislators also reported the same pattern that performance in parliament played a key role in their re-selection, keeping them active as a means to show their potential to their parties. These women parliamentarians informed me that political parties need active women MNAs because the legislative input made by them ultimately strengthens the party position and contributions to parliament, especially when male MNAs show comparatively less interest in legislation.

But when I asked why is it not important for male members to perform in parliament, a female MNA very nicely put it in this way: “Male MNAs enter parliament through direct elections on the basis of their potential to contest elections and win the popular vote. They are well aware of the fact that they will be re-elected next time too irrespective of their performance in parliament. Parties and the government will again embrace them despite their poor performance in the legislature. We [women who come on quotas] are obviously not sure about our own political future, mainly relying on the party and party leaders; women are simply at the male leaders’ mercy.”

What is important to note is that performing well in parliament is not considered necessary for all women MNAs, including those who have come on quotas. Many less active women MNAs, who perform poorly in parliament, told me in interviews that they were still hopeful of securing parliamentary seats after the next election. Their confidence stemmed from the fact that they enjoy better connections with and support of male party leaders, who ultimately control and decide which women should be in parliament on reserved seats, while providing patronage to the women of their choice. In reality, women who come into parliament through quotas are controlled by powerful men in their parties, who also control women’s entry into parliament. Indeed, leading women MNAs feel that they are beholden to male party leaders and fear that they can be sidelined at any point. As one woman MNA put it, “No matter how much you work throughout, they [party leaders] can drop you at any time without giving any satisfactory reason.”

In my interviews, most women parliamentarians who have come on quota insisted that the increase in women’s presence without distribution of real power will only succeed in symbolic representation, not in substantive representation, of women. The fact is that women parliamentarians are outstanding players, but the feudalistic and male-dominated nature of parliament and political parties perpetuates the harsh treatment experienced by women MNAs.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 5th, 2015.

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