March Issue 2018
The Big Question: Which political party has done the most and the least for the advancement of women’s rights?
It has been the PML-N, especially in Punjab. Not just in terms of legislation but also in policy implementation, institutional strengthening for pro-women work, putting women in leadership positions and in flagship programmes. The liberal PPP pales out in comparison and the less said about the non-existent PTI work for women, the better.
Manifestos are fairly redundant. They shouldn’t be, but it seems that with the ‘death of ideology’ they’ve become just formalities. I don’t expect any radical shift or effort being put in by any of the parties, with the exception of AWP (Awami Workers Party). Political party workers of PPP and PML factions and some nationalist parties workers will not be reinventing their manifestos despite the major economic changes witnessed in the country. Civil society rarely lobbies for updated or specific amendments for manifestos — again with the exception of Women’s Action Forum (WAF), which has drawn up a women’s manifesto for every election. They demand attention to the impact of CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) on women and working classes etc. But most supporters, especially of the PTI, mostly just troll on issues. So the shift has come from a generation that wants to debate interactively, moralistically and superficially rather than on substance. At best, laws will be discussed and dissected but not policies. This distinction is interesting. In any case, I bet hardly anyone you ask this question of will have any idea what the manifesto of the party they support says. But they’ll know micro details of other features — personal and other data. The manifestos of religious parties are very interesting. Only some old-school journalists (Zia ur Rehman, Ali Arqam) look into these aspects of parties. I don’t even understand how a party that says it’s for the ‘youth’ isn’t invested in resurrecting student unions — which organised sector of the youth can then seriously claim to represent or contribute to the party’s policies and offer a representative manifesto on youth issues?
In terms of vision, the PPP used to be the most progressive on women’s issues but today the AWP and some nationalist parties have strong feminist undertones to their stated positions and manifestos. Women’s groups should be throwing their weight behind WAF’s demands which include the call for a progressive and substantive divorce law, regulation of their work in the informal sector, secularisation of state and society, gender-responsive budgeting in all public sector institutions, restrictions on vigilantism and media-led misogyny, repeal of discriminatory laws and the death penalty, housing and social protection for the poor and immediate merger and reforms for FATA with the inclusion of women in the process. WAF would also demand of parties that they adopt WAF’s stance that Violence Against Women is Violence Against the State. So essentially, the PPP and PML-N have passed several progressive laws for women — this is important and they should be given due credit. And now it’s time to focus — not just on their “implementation,” but on policies that support and strengthen institutions that apply the principles of women’s equality. It would be good if parties started empowering the provincial women’s commissions as conduits to carry out their mandates because these are the sites which make laws and policies meaningful. Parties will be taken seriously on the woman question when they start promoting women from within their party cadres and awarding them leadership roles, provided these women are strong on women’s, minority and human rights. At the moment the ANP is the only party I know of, that doesn’t separate women into ‘wings’ but includes them like equal adults in the mainstream party.
With general elections just four months away, political parties are yet to make public their manifestos. However, judging by the legislation and positions taken, it is reassuring to know that all political parties are responsive to issues concerning women. Going by past performance, the Pakistan People’s Party has demonstrated its commitment to women’s rights more categorically than other parties.
The PPP government, last in power between 2008 and 2013, enacted the highest number of pro-women legislation in Pakistan’s history. The groundbreaking bills passed covered issues such as sexual harassment at the workplace, ban on customary laws and practices that violated the rights of women, while the National Commission on the Status of Women was given autonomy and the bill for setting up the National Commission on Human Rights was signed. The Sindh provincial legislature enacted laws against domestic violence and child marriage. Moreover, for the first time, a woman was appointed Speaker of the National Assembly.
Benazir Bhutto’s election as prime minister in 1988 brought a sense of euphoria among Pakistani women. She created history by becoming the first Muslim woman prime minister in the world. While unable to undo many of the discriminatory laws introduced by the regime of Zia-ul-Haq she, nevertheless, took several tangible steps for women’s empowerment. These included setting up of First Women Bank, women police stations and the appointment of women as high court judges.
At the provincial level, the PML-N has taken the lead in ensuring women’s rights. Its Provincial Commission on the Status of Women is both credible and active. Domestic violence has been outlawed and a well-equipped women’s protection centre has been set up as a pilot project in Multan. Additionally, enforcement of pro-women laws has been more effective than in Sindh.
The Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (an alliance of religious parties), that formed the government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2012, was certainly the most anti-women party. While in power, its policies closely followed those of the routed Taliban in Afghanistan. The ‘Hasba’ bill that it tried to introduce would have meant strict segregation and denied women many fundamental rights. Its component parties continue to hinder women’s progress.
A commitment to ensure women’s greater participation in the political process should be one of the key promises in the manifestos of all political parties. It could be the beginning of change in many aspects of a woman’s life.
Our social institutions are very patriarchal and there is a debate about whether and to what extent the state counters or reinforces patriarchy. The formal makeup of the state — as expressed in the constitution — is liberal in the sense that it recognises the political equality of individuals regardless of sex. Moreover, the state is formally based on a social contract among individuals rather than patriarchal collectives such as family, clan or tribe. We have a long way to go, and I believe that those politics which strengthen this liberal aspect of the state advance, in the long term, the rights of women. So, political parties that stand up for this social contract do good, while those that give primacy to patriarchal collectives such as the nation, religious sect, tribe and family do the reverse. In practical terms some parties have been known to steer progressive legislation for women’s rights, and others have often opposed such legislation. I think that besides legislation, policy and programme design can endorse patriarchy or quietly undermine it. One example is income support. Before the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) most cash transfer programmes in Pakistan recognised the male head of the household as the primary beneficiary, and women only in cases where male heads were not available. BISP changed this and made women the primary beneficiaries.
Going forward, one issue that interests me greatly is the recognition, protection and promotion of the rights and wellbeing of women agricultural workers. Although women constitute over half of the agricultural workforce in Pakistan, their contribution remains hidden and unrecognised — in official statistics, in policy, in terms of wages and working conditions, and in the way that communities and families assign importance to their economic contribution. This has to change. I would like to see proactive laws and policies for the recognition, protection and promotion of the rights of women as workers, particularly in the agricultural sector. I would like to see the issue debated, placed in party manifestos and taken forward.
In my opinion, no political party in Pakistan has really done much for the advancement of women’s rights. The fact is all parties pay lip service to the women’s cause because they know that if they don’t profess to be supportive of women, they would not enjoy much electoral backing in an election. But that hardly means that they genuinely try to improve conditions for women.
How would one judge a political party’s achievements on the women’s issue? First, one can assess the stance of a party — its posture and not so much what it actually does. Secondly, one can evaluate what has actually been done on the ground. Using the two criteria, I find that most parties in Pakistan have adopted a very “correct” stance on women. Their manifestos have all said the right things at the right time.
Which means that political parties generally cannot be faulted for the stand they take on the gender issue. But it is also clear that they evade specifics in their election manifestos and party policy statements. No measurable goals are mentioned so that the party is not pinned down to concrete action.
Thus the Jamaat-e-Islami qualifies every mention of women’s rights with the phrase, “as guaranteed by the Shariah.” How can one interpret this? It is an easy way of escaping responsibility for any wrong that is done.
On the second criterion — action on the ground — we find the situation rather ambivalent. For instance, the Pakistan People’s Party stands head and shoulders above the others in promoting pro-women laws. This tradition goes back to the days of Z.A. Bhutto which also coincided with the first International Women’s Conference in 1975 when Nusrat Bhutto led Pakistan’s delegation to Mexico. Benazir Bhutto was the prime minister in 1996, when her government ratified CEDAW which had been in force since 1981 with Pakistan not committing itself to the specified guidelines.
The PPP was instrumental in getting many women-friendly laws adopted such as Domestic Violence (Prohibition) Act, Child Marriage Restraint Act, Protection against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act and so on. These laws have had the backing of the PPP and that is why Sindh, where the PPP rules the roost, has been the first province to adopt many of these laws, when other provinces ruled by other parties have been slower. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where the PTI and Jamaat-e-Islami rule in a coalition, still has no domestic violence law. One can say the PPP has the right stance.
But this did not lead to a remarkable enhancement in the status of women. Women continue to be victims of patriarchy. Other parties have failed to do even this.
In my view, women’s issues have not been on the priority list of most political parties in Pakistan. It was the Communist Party of Pakistan that took the lead and established the Democratic Women’s Association (Anjuman-e-Jamhuriyat Pasand Khawateen), in the early days after Partition. It was led by the gutsy Tahira Mazhar Ali Khan.
However, if one had to identify one party that has done a certain amount of work for the advancement of women, it would have to be the PPP. One can trace it down to the first PPP government, when one saw workers’ participation in politics and key institutions increase, significantly, and many women also joined mainstream politics, irrespective of class differences.
In Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government, Begum Nusrat Bhutto was quite assertive; she brought women rights issues to the fore for the first time. She participated in the first United Nations Conference on Women in Mexico in 1975. Begum Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan, who had been an important member of the original Muslim League, later joined PPP and was appointed the first female governor of the province of Sindh on February 15, 1973.
Both Begum Nusrat Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto led the resistance movement against the dictatorial Martial Law regime of General Zia-ul-Haq, which eventually resulted in the formation of WAF. The female leadership of the PPP also played a prominent role during the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) in 1983, as did the Sindhiani Tehreek.
Benazir’s election as Prime Minister in 1988 proved to be highly significant in advancing the cause of women in Pakistan. It was a momentous, path-breaking event that made waves not just in Pakistan, but also in the rest of the Muslim world. The PPP government also took practical measures for the advancement of women. But it was General Musharaf who introduced 18 per cent representation of women in parliament and 33 per cent in local government institutions through reservation. However, even today, the reserved seats for women in Parliament and the provincial assemblies are less than 18 per cent. Despite their small numbers, the performance of women parliamentarians is much better than their male counterparts. Incidentally civil society had submitted a memorandum to the present Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reforms for bringing changes in the current electoral system, but they did not consider any of the recommendations.
The second Benazir government, from November 1993 to August 1996, also took some practical measures for women like the appointment of women judges in the Sindh and Lahore High Courts and established separate women’s police stations across the country. In her second tenure, Benazir Bhutto took part in the Fourth UN World Conference on Women held in Beijing in September 1995 that put forward a platform of action that made it incumbent on governments to ensure women’s equality, empowerment and justice. But unfortunately, she was overthrown yet again.
The Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), which has had the chance of leading the federal and the Punjab Government for three terms since 1990, has done virtually nothing for the advancement of women in Pakistan. In fact, the introduction of the Shariat Bill under the 15th Constitutional Amendment in 1998 by then prime minister Nawaz Sharif was considered a regressive step and women’s organisations had opposed it vociferously.
As far as the cause of women’s advancement is concerned, we have the glaring example of a South Asian country, Nepal, before us, where the people not only restored democracy by overthrowing monarchy, but framed a very progressive Constitution, which ensures 33 per cent reserved seats for women both in the Parliament and the local government. Every political party is bound to nominate women for at least 33 per cent seats in the general elections. Besides the 33 per cent reserved seats, about seven to eight per cent women have been elected on the general seats as well.
Ms Bidhya Devi Bhandari, a long-time member of the South Asian Labour Forum and Peoples’ SAARC, is the second President of the country. Nepal’s present Parliamentary Speaker and the Chief Justice of the Nepalese Supreme Court are also women.