Asia-Pacific, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights

POLITICS-PAKISTAN: Women in Parliament Push for Space

Zofeen Ebrahim

KARACHI, Jun 1 2009 (IPS) - "Politics is no rocket science," says Yasmeen Rehman, a woman parliamentarian in Pakistan’s Lower House, adding, "It is not as difficult as it is made out to be."

Yasmeen Rehman makes an intervention in the National Assembly Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Yasmeen Rehman makes an intervention in the National Assembly Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

A new study by Aurat Foundation (AF), a women’s group, that evaluates women MPs’ (member of parliament) performance between 2002 and 2007, is full of praise for female lawmakers.

Rehman led a group of 25 MPs as the most active on the floor of the house in making the most interventions.

"Women parliamentarians have actually excelled in several areas of legislative functioning as compared to their male colleagues," states the report.

Women account for 21.6 percent of MPs in Pakistan’s parliament. In 2002, the figure was slightly lower at 21.1 percent.

But it still compares favourably with the rest of Asia, where female participation in parliament was calculated at 17.8 percent, by the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union. The global average was 18.3 percent in 2008.

The year 2002 was a watershed in women’s political representation in Pakistan. For the first time, they got 17 percent representation in both the national and provincial assemblies based on nominations by their parties.

Rehman, who had been a home-maker living in the shadow of her businessman husband, was nominated by the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). She is the sister of former attorney general, Malik Mohammad Qayyum.

But were these female politicians taken seriously?

In 2006, at a workshop held by the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT), the women MPs complained of "not being taken seriously", not only by male colleagues but by the speaker of the national assembly, and chairman of the senate.

"Yes we admit that we are children of a lesser god. But once we are there we should be given a chance and not ignored only because we are elected on reserved seats," says Begum Zeb Gohar, a former legislator with the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam).

The Aurat Foundation study titled ‘A five year report on: Performance of Women Parliamentarians in the 12th National Assembly (2002-2007)’ states that women MPs moved 27 percent of the total questions; 30 percent of the total calling attention notices; 24 percent of the total resolutions and 42 percent of the total private member bills in the assembly during the five years of the study.

Women played a key role in raising issues of violence, health, education, and the environment. A bill on karo-kari (so-called honour killing) was enacted by the national assembly in 2004 and a Women’s Rights bill in 2006.

Women may not be calling the shots, but "they are now accepted," says 38-year old Khurram Dastagir Khan of Pakistan Muslim League (N), the party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Setting aside party differences, women lawmakers joined hands in November 2008 to create a caucus to fight for women’s right under the stewardship of the speaker, Fehmida Mirza. "The formation of the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus is a historic step by women parliamentarians who have collectively taken a bold step to rise above party lines and work together on policy making for women." says MP Nafisa Shah, the general secretary of the caucus, told IPS.

"We’re the only parliament with a women’s caucus in South Asia," boasts Bushra Gohar, MP from the Awami National Party. She envisions a regional women MPs caucus too. "We want to talk about bringing peace in the region, specially after the Mumbai terrorist attack (in December 2008)."

Women’s voices have also got stronger with the presence of a woman speaker, Mirza. Earlier their call attention notices were ignored, and the time allocated them was always less than the male parliamentarians, says Rehman. "You had to have a very thick skin (to be vocal in parliament)," she recalls.

What helped Rehman was a three-month gender mainstreaming, policy planning and development fellowship in the U.K. in 2005. It taught her how to look at issues from a gender angle, she says. "It was an absolutely marvelous mentorship and I came back armed with a newfound enthusiasm and oodles of confidence."

Rehman’s advice: women in parliament have to prove themselves and work twice as hard to be taken seriously.

Many female MPs are "silent spectators" in the house, according to Dastagir Khan of the PML-N. "Their performance is as poor as men."

An assembly staffer, who has observed the working of parliament for 21 years, echoes his views. "They (women) are as good as not being there. They are as ineffective as the opposition," he says on the condition of anonymity.

To prove their mettle, they should contest direct elections, he feels. "Don’t come as a daughter-in-law or wife, win and come on your own right."

Unless political parties set aside seats for women, women will not be able to break into the political process and strengthen their visibility in parliament, according to Gohar.

"Women should be given 33 percent representation in each political party’s key mainstream decision-making structures at all levels and a minimum of 17 percent as chairs of parliamentary committees and other parliamentary offices. This will help gain political expedience, experience, and women will learn to interact with people," says Gohar.

In Pakistan’s rocky political history, seats were reserved for women in the 1985 and 1988 general elections, ensuring an 8.4 percent representation. But the polls of 1990, 1993 and 1997 did not provide for a quota for women. There were no women members in the assembly those years.

Rehman has the last word. "If you need women’s voices in parliament, we need the quota," she says.

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