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The News, Opinion - July 27, 2002
Rasul Bakhsh Rais
No other issue is so contentious and well-debated in the politics of contemporary societies as the question of gender and politics. Women activists all over the world have begun to question political inequality among the sexes. They have raised fundamental questions about the essence of male-dominated democratic system in which women find themselves formally or informally excluded from political power. In recent decades, they have focused on the vital issues of empowerment, rights, social and political equality and discrimination in its all forms. The feminist movement even in a male dominated, socially conservative society like Pakistan has brought into sharp focus more or less the same issues about the social status of the women and their inadequate representation in the political power and participation in politics.
The feminist movement around the world reach startlingly the same conclusions on the issue of gender and political power. Although women in different parts of the world face different problems and confront different challenges and the feminist movement has many shades and strands, all of them, irrespective of the nature of societies they live in, strike a common tone: a) All modern societies are governed by males; b) Women in all societies have subordinate roles; c) Male dominance is not a natural but cultural phenomenon that must change.
Change in gender relationships, self-empowerment of women and getting the first principle of democracy and equality accepted are some of the themes that are at the centre of women's political movement. Pakistan is no exception. But the women in Pakistan mainly due to the social and cultural conditions are more disadvantaged than the women in modern western democratic societies. Their struggle, perhaps as old as the country itself, has not evoked the same responses and has not achieved the same results either.
What is heartening is that women in Pakistan are getting more organised, with their activists highly educated, skilled and articulate. And all women groups have a clear vision and a convincing agenda of more forward-looking politics than that of the males in the Pakistani society. Yet, they have to travel a long distance before they get equal rights or increase their share in different professions or in political power. What holds the women in Pakistan back? Why very few women compared to their substantial numbers, roughly fifty percent of the population, exercise or seek to exercise political power?
These questions have been a subject of many theories, conjecturing and sociological explanations in different countries. Many of the factors that work against equality of women in both developed and developing countries are more deeply ingrained in Pakistani society. Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, has attempted to explain low participation of women in politics with reference to four hypothetical constraints -- physiological constraints; cultural constraints; role constraints; and male conspiracy. The American political context of this and many other similar studies does not eliminate their relevance to the developing countries like Pakistan. But in explaining the low participation of women in the power process of our countries we have to account for variations, relatively greater influence of some factors than others and look for what is unique and so different from other situations. In case of Pakistan, one must fully comprehend the cultural constraints and how they have reinforced the subordinate social role of women. The social structures that are at the base of any type of political process consist of power relations, relative positions of individuals and groups, established identities and determined roles.
The larger question about gender and power can only be understood in terms of the social structures and how they distribute values in the society. Looking at the general values, social structures and cultural orientation of the Pakistani population, one finds women in the country as the most oppressed social and political class. Dependence, passivity, low self-esteem and denial of even some of the basic rights characterise their general status. But there are great variations in the status and roles of women depending on their social circumstances.
Educated and professional women in urban areas and from upper classes of the society enjoy much better status and rights than illiterate women in rural areas. Women in tribal areas of Balochistan, Frontier province and remote areas of southern Punjab and interior Sindh live in more adverse social conditions than women in other parts of the country. Although honour killings, domestic violence and discrimination by the male members of the families are too common in these areas, they are not confined there alone.
Our argument is that exclusion from political process or even voluntary low-participation of women are culturally and socially determined traits; and that the state in the political culture of traditional male-dominant society of Pakistan has done very little to meaningfully empower women. The low social status of women because of the customs of largely feudal and tribal culture pose the biggest barrier in the way of women's involvement in public affairs of the society in general and electoral politics in particular. Studies on political participation have again and again demonstrated the relationship between social status and participation in the electoral politics.
All women groups throughout the history of Pakistan have time and again suggested that the state must take the lead to increase women's participation through reserving seats for them in the elected assemblies. Another area of women's demands relate to removing or amending discriminatory laws against them. All women rights activists consider the state as the primary agent of bringing about change in their social and political status, as the slow evolution from within the society would take a longer time. This has been quite a consistent theme in the feminist movement, but at the same time with the expansion of civil society networks, women have found a large number of independent forums to articulate their demands and seek and expand participation in the informal sectors of political power.
During much of the decade of democracy when elected governments were in power, the question of women's participation remained unsettled, particularly amending of the constitution to extend the initial period of ten years and the mode of elections. Only recently, the government of General Pervez Musharraf has taken some radical measures to increase women's participation. In the new arrangements that have been announced women will be allocated 30 percent of the seats in the national and provincial assemblies. These are formal affirmative action measures that the women movement in Pakistan had demanded for a long time. Will their status, role and participation in elections increase? Will discrimination against them come to an end?
In answering these questions on must focus on social structures, the rural agrarian environment and the feudal and tribal characteristics of the society. The formal measures that the military government have taken to end discrimination against women are important but the real change will come when the social barriers gradually come down. Women's equality as candidates and voters continues to suffer not because of state policy, but primarily due to tradition, social structures, lower level of education and a male-dominant society.
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