Women in politics: The great paradox

By Zubeida Mustafa

ELECTIONS- 88 in Pakistan have highlighted the two paradoxes that have come to characterise the role of women in politics in a number of Third World countries. At one end are a handful of enterprising, educated and emancipated women who participate in the political processes and gain general acceptance in leadership roles. At the other end are the women among the masses who lack education, political awareness and personal freedom. Their involvement in politics is minimal.

What is significant in Pakistan is that the size of the small group of women active in politics is growing, while the number of those uninvolved in and untouched by the electoral exercise which is the essence of a democratic system is shrinking. In the elections this time the women’s presence on the political scene created a greater impression than ever before.


There were more women voters in 1988 than there were in the 1985 elections. In 1985, 15.5 million women were registered as voters. This time the female voters numbered 21.5 million. An indicator of their growing political participation was the ratio between men and women voters. In 1985 this was 100:121, more men being on the electoral roles than the sex ratio in the population which is 100; 111. In 1988, the margin had visibly shrunk to 100 : 116. How many female voters actually voted on November 16 and 19 is not known.

The Election Commission has not so far released the turnout of women voters. But this is definite that many of them who failed to vote in the rural areas or the low income localities of the cities were handicapped by the requirement for identity cards. It is generally known that a large number of women, especially those who are not exposed to public life, do not possess an identity card.

A random survey by our reporter in those areas of Karachi where the ID card factor would not have affected turnout appreciably showed that women were not too far behind men in exercising their right to vote. In fact in some polling booths the female response was much better. For instance in Karachi’s Sindhi Muslim Society by midday on November 16, 37 per cent of the registered female voters had cast their votes as against only 22 per cent men. In another polling station at Lasbela at the end of the day the women’s turnout was 49.5 per cent as compared with 41.6 per cent for men.

In terms of seeking an elective office too the women have displayed a keener interest in politics this time than before. While 12 women candidates contested for the general seats in the National Assembly, 20 were in the run for provincial seats. Four were elected to the National Assembly in eight constituencies and two won seats in the provincial assemblies — one in the NWFP and one in Punjab.

In the case of female candidates it was not so much their numbers as their stature which made an impact. Most notable among them were the Bhutto ladies who emerged as national leaders in their own right. Both proved to be untiring and effective campaigners and won seats outside their home province of Sind, which was quite a feat considering the fact that they were the only candidates to do so.

The success of the Peoples Party in the elections points to the political acumen of its leaders and their involvement in an area of national life where female participation has been rather limited. If Ms Bhutto is called upon to form a government to which she is entitled by virtue of her party’s majority in the National Assembly, she would have convincingly demonstrated her capacity to play on an individual level as impressive a role as any man even in a male dominated society as ours. In the absence of an analysis of the votes on the basis of sex it is difficult to say if any gender gap determined the success or otherwise of the different parties.

It is highly probable that many of the women voters lacking in education and political awareness and highly dependent on the male members of their family would have been influenced by them in the exercise of their choice. But what has clearly emerged from elections-88 is that women can no longer be taken for granted.

Their numerical strength, the problems peculiar to them and the awareness which has been created in them by women’s groups working for their emancipation have compelled political parties to take note of the female presence in the electorate. Women are now a force to be reckoned with. The parties have demonstrated their interest in women in two ways. First, all major political parties have organised women’s wings to mobilise women on a political platform. Secondly, nearly every party was constrained to take note of the women’s question in its manifesto.

Obviously the position they adopted on different issues affecting women varied with the ideological and political orientation of the parties. While the Pakistan Peoples Party has1 promised among other things the repeal of discriminatory laws against women and its manifesto pledges that Pakistan will sign the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, the IJI’s manifesto speaks of giving full opportunities to women to participate in the family and in all walks of life.

While the impact of women on politics is now being felt widely, the situation is still far from ideal for them. Some of the slanderous and derogatory sexist remarks hurled by chauvinistic male politicians against women leaders in the election campaign are indicative of the lack of political maturity in some of the men in public life in Pakistan. Also signifying sexual prejudice was the claim made by some leaders that a woman cannot be the President or Prime Minister in a Muslim state. The failure of a number of women candidates to get elected points to the socio-cultural impediments a woman can face when seeking election in competition with men.

This factor has been recognised by and large. Hence the reservation of seats for women in the legislatures. But the 20 women who are elected to the National Assembly on the reserved seats are indirectly elected by the House which is male-dominated. The women in Pakistan still have a long way to go before they will emerge as equal partners with men in politics.

Education, political enlightenment and social emancipation will help them achieve full representation in the institutions of government which is necessary if they are to be in a position to influence decision-making. But this is certain that a long enough period of uninterrupted democracy is required to take women towards the goal of power-sharing in politics

Source: Dawn 2 Dec 1988