When I was in fourth grade, Zubaida Jalal, then Pakistan’s federal minister for education, visited our school in Pakistan’s southwestern port town of Gwadar. It was my first time meeting a politician, that too a female politician. Her visit, questions to the students in Balochi (the native language) and the traditional Baloch dress inspired my little self. I wanted to become as empowered as she was, and maybe run for office someday. I had never seen a woman in my family working outside the home, let alone becoming a politician.
As I grew older, the rampant corruption, misogyny, and constant political instability in Pakistan – and especially political unrest in my home province of Balochistan – made me realize how challenging it was to be a politician and I was no longer interested in becoming one. I came to prefer community service and writing. However, the political dynamics for women in Pakistan have always interested me, and I have often written about and interviewed female politicians.
Most of these interviews began with a discussion of how difficult it is for women to become politicians in the first place, especially for those not necessarily from elite and dynastic political backgrounds. And they often concluded by talking about how challenging it was for any woman – whether or not from a dynastic background – once she achieved political office.
For example, being the daughter of a former president and prime minister, Benazir Bhutto – the first and so far the only woman prime minister of Pakistan (in office from 1988 to 1990 and again from 1993 to 1996) – may have had an easier path entering into an otherwise male-dominated political establishment. But she ended up being assassinated in 2007 during her electoral campaign for a third term as prime minister.
In Pakistan, a fear of terrorist attacks and political violence often exists irrespective of gender. But women in particular face additional challenges: sexism, misogyny, lack of opportunities, and limited education and training avenues. Even from within their own parties, female politicians face prejudice from the grassroots to the federal level. Women may be assigned membership in assemblies without being given specific portfolios, which limits their power. They face an uphill climb when competing for nominations, decision-making, and leadership positions.
Women in Pakistan make up almost half of the population (49 percent), yet they have a small share of senior, executive, or legislative roles – only 4.5 percent, one of the lowest in the world. Only two in every 10 Pakistani women participate in the labor force, again one of the lowest rates in the region. Even in terms of civic participation, women’s political engagement is limited; during the 2018 elections, of the 46 million women that were registered to vote, only 40 percent voted.
It is well established that women in Pakistan do not make up significant numbers, whether as voters, candidates, or members of political parties. To address this, Pakistan’s Constitution has reserved quotas for women: 17 percent of the seats in both the National Assembly and the Senate.
In 2000, the controversial military regime of dictator Pervez Musharraf introduced the “Devolution of Power Plan” to address the gender imbalance.
“Although people might not agree, the dictator government encouraged women to participate in politics,” said Zubaida Jalal, who has previously served as federal minister for education (2002 to 2007) and federal minister for defense production (2018 to 2022), “The plan through a new system of local government allotted 33 percent of the local seats to women. This helped women from the grassroots to participate in the local political body.”
Jalal is originally from Mand, a small town in the Balochistan province, near the Iranian border. So far, she is the only woman ever elected from the Makran division. Despite “never planning to enter politics,” she said, “I ended up making this conscious decision in 2002 to implement reforms in the education sector, my life-long passion.”
Whether or not Jalal succeeded in bringing any reforms is often debated, and her choice to serve as a politician under a dictatorship did not win her much favor in her own region. She was not alone in joining hands with the Musharraf regime; many male politicians did as well. However, in this as in many other areas, women face a heavier burden of criticism.
Religious and cultural patriarchy are deeply rooted in Pakistan’s social and political system. As a result, women politicians are frequently belittled and critiqued for things like their appearance, and receive little recognition at home if and when they make some notable contributions.
For example, Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s climate minister, was recently featured in Time Magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of 2023. At COP27, the U.N. climate summit held in Egypt last November, she advocated for the underdeveloped countries that are most vulnerable to climate change, despite being least responsible for it. Efforts by Rehman and others resulted in a historic decision where the world leaders agreed to establish a new loss and damage funding to support the most affected countries.
Despite what female politicians can do, “considering politics as a career is still unusual” for women in Pakistan, Tahira Khurshid, a former local district councilor who is now preparing for much-debated upcoming elections in October 2023, told The Diplomat.
“Women as voters and candidates have always been fewer. Issues with mobility, security and patriarchy have limited opportunities,” she explained. “Entering public life in Pakistan one has been mentally prepared to confront situations where police and forces can drag you on the roads. During protests or political chaos, women are not spared by the forces.
“Other times, you would hear how women should be respected, but that ‘respect’ is only for the women who stay at home and do not participate in politics. whether as activists, party workers or politicians,’’ she says.
For example, women were not spared during the chaos after the former Prime Minister Imran Khan was arrested on May 9. Although he was soon granted bail, his party workers took to the streets in widespread and deadly protests throughout the country. Paramilitary troops and police were deployed in all major cities, with internet and mobile services restricted by the Ministry of Interior and the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority.
Women rights activists remained divided over Khan’s female party workers and supporters being dragged by the police, and the arrests of women politicians like Shireen Mazari, the former federal minister for human rights.
While many, like the independent group Women Democratic Front, condemned police violence against female protesters, many pointed out that Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) had hardly stood for women’s rights, and the party itself had belittled its own female politicians.
For example, when the PTI awarded party tickets in 2018, female party workers were dissatisfied, claiming the tickets were allotted without considering merit and work. But this phenomenon is widespread across political parties. When tickets are not awarded through merit, more opaque selection criteria benefit men in a patriarchal society. More concerning, legislation is often not a strong point among selected candidates.
“Not all the time but often parties only allot tickets [to women] because the law mandates them to, in other words, ‘fill the gender quota.’ If seats were allotted on the basis of merit, a lot of legislation in favor of women would have been a reality,” Fareeha Hassan, a lawyer in Lahore, told The Diplomat.
Tahira Khurshid, who belongs to the National Party in Balochistan, agrees with the argument. “I was twice nominated by my party for a women’s reserved seat in the Provincial Assembly of Balochistan and once in the country’s upper house, the Senate. Unfortunately, all three times, I could not make it. But this did not influence my decision to try again,” she said.
“Not all parties nominate women members. For outsiders, not from a political family, it is still difficult to make it to the provincial and federal assembly or Senate,” she says.
With some exceptions, political power in Pakistan is undeniably overwhelmingly the domain of men. Where increased numbers are necessary to bolster gender inclusion, that is not the only important metric. Tracking legislation by women, their implementation, and ministerial positions over time are a few key indicators to measure their political empowerment. In that regard, women still have a long way to go and the upcoming elections of October are yet another test of the gender dynamics in Pakistan’s political field.