When a woman in Pakistan gets into politics it is like she’s consciously decided to walk onto a bloody battlefield. There are only two outcomes. She will either be marred to oblivion or have to live with the ensuing media riot aimed to defame her for violation of some code or the other. Pakistani women parliamentarians have had their cleavages spattered across media screens; they have been body-shamed, name-called and character-assassinated routinely. They have also been ousted from their seats by jirgas because they were estranged with their husbands whose social clout got them elected in the first place.
Despite this, women in Parliament have made strides and passed pro-women legislation. In a less hostile environment, the women in this country would have many more safeguards and that too far earlier. The last decade has seen not just legislation but on-ground impact. More violence against women cases are being reported, more women are seeking out justice, there are more women’s centers to go to, the labor policies for women are better and there is certainly more recourse to law for professional discrimination thanks to the work of women legislators. We’re not going to get the celebratory drums out yet, however these strides were no small feat considering.
Those women lawmakers that step up and take on a media war for sexual harassment, for instance, face within their parties and externally a vitriolic witch-hunt. There is a backlash against women parliamentarians that call out harassment, across party and gender lines even when any allegations have yet to be proven either way. The only acceptable position women must take when entering politics is silence, it seems. Only then, perhaps is it most honorable and worthy of respect.
There are far too few women with a voice in the political amphitheater of the country. Only a meager 17 per cent of national and provincial assembly members are women.
Last elections, a party went as far as excluding women to cast their vote in Lower Dir. Equality of women in politics is not on any party’s agenda, let along the religious right’s. However no party has an issue electing women on reserved seats, which are now at 60. Also, there is no issue with this because these women are often mere proxy to male politicians and securely belong to the elite.
For those working class women who break through the glass ceiling as well as the epic harassment and ridicule in order to actually legislate face severe sexism. It impacts these women the worst, because no man has any interest to hurt those who hurt them. Middle class women are on their own.
The way women in politics are treated is a deterrent enough for new women lawmakers to enter the field. Women are routinely undermined by men as if women are wearing an invisibility cloak. If women speak up against it, men in politics use their privilege to frighten them into silent corners.
Sadly, women also face harassment by other women parliamentarians who themselves have been routinely slut-shamed. The irony. Women across party have been known to accuse women who come out with an accusation of blind ambition. Women who stick their necks out have also been accused of doling out sexual favors to powerful men, even on live television – that too by women parliamentarians. Internalized misogyny, not just plain old patriarchy, is the bane of women’s limited involvement in politics.
It doesn’t end there. Another form of sexism women in politics face is that they get stonewalled when pushing ahead for changes they want to see in laws. Fellow male lawmakers do this. Men in politics block their legislative lobbying and they take away their decision-making mechanisms. This is why laws on maternity benefit; anti-acid-throwing; anti-violence and anti-harassment laws have stalled as much as they have – each step as difficult as trying to feed pine nuts to a hamster on a wheel. The system, a men’s club in reality, pushes women far away from where the sphere of influence. In some zanana corner. What happens to women in parliament is what happens to them in their homes – they are handed thankless caregiving tasks.
The role political parties should play in eliminating this horrific culture depends largely on how severe the consequences are of violating a woman’s dignity. Male parliamentarians have repeated used grossly derogatory language against women parliamentarians and get emboldened enough after every abuse to be more insulting to women the next time around. Within the party, leadership reacts by giving such men more political accolades.
In the first general elections of 1970 in what is now present-day Pakistan, 77.8 voters were women compared with 100 men. In 2013 their ratio of participation in elections held almost half a century later slipped to 77.4. Whereas this is a shock in terms of numbers, it is only reflective of deep-rooted male privilege that proliferates in Pakistan – city to tehsil – it never diminishes. To men in power, nothing is more comfortable than status quo. Equality of women in politics is a slogan, not a belief. Women are at best an extension of male politicians, and when they show will, the moral police across political parties whip them back into line and into their version of submissiveness.
The debate on women’s participation in politics in Pakistan has largely remained confined to reserving women’s seats, but the real issue remains that there needs to be a level playing field where intersectional women can step out and compete on their own terms and on their own credentials on general seats – Ideally, credentials that are not necessarily linked to a male guardian, nor propped up with campaign wealth. That is when real change will happen.
This cannot take place until the women who have gone off the beaten track and landed on the parliamentary seats, by whichever route, are first treated with the respect and authority they deserve. That these women’s decisions carry weight, that their voice travels and that when they are wronged that there is swift action against proven perpetrators. This will pave the way for others. This is what will ultimately bring solidarity among women themselves.