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March '06: Political women and not quota women

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Political women and not quota women
(March 2006)
For it's March individu-spotlight, Individualland would like to examine whether reserved seats facilitate or impede women's political development? Individualland would submit that perhaps there is a need to focus on political education and sensitization for young women and men rather than superficial short term measures like quotas.

The International Women's Day was on March 8th. Year after year on this day statements are issued by various groups reaffirming their commitment to women's rights. Since 2002, in Pakistan, on each women's Day the large number of women parliamentarians in Pakistan are cited as an example of the gender sensitivity of the present government. Citizens also heard President Mushraff during a joint press meeting with President George Bush proudly declaring that approximately thirty thousand women are present in the legislative corridors of the country at the three tiers namely local, provincial and national. In Pakistan, seats at the local, provincial and national level are reserved for women as an affirmative action. While a number of commentators have started examining the experience of these women, individualland would like to ask a fundamental question: do reservation of seats facilitate or hamper the political growth of women? Is this affirmative action truly affirmative or is it counter productive? Some analysts have also opined that it is neither. They point out that reservation occurring in a political vacuum has no effect. They cite instances from Pakistan's own history where there was reservation of seats before but still political empowerment of Pakistani women remains an illusive dream.

In India, women rights groups are actively trying to lobby for the passage of the Reservation Bill. Some groups in Pakistan are even demanding a further increase of women seats to 43 per cent. Individualland would like to examine whether reserved seats facilitate or impede women's political development. Individualland would also submit that perhaps there is a need to focus on political education and sensitization for young women and men rather than superficial short term measures like quotas.

The Facts

According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, in September 2005, there was an average of 16% women in lower and upper houses of some 186 national parliaments. Depending on the continent, this proportion ranged between 39.8% in the Nordic countries, about 19 % in European countries,18.8% in the Americas, 16% in Sub-Saharan Africa, 15.7% in Asia, 12% in the Pacific countries, and 8.2% in the Arab States. Since the beginning of the 1990s, roughly 90 countries have adopted some form of positive action (be it reserved seats, legalconstitutional or legislativequotas, or party quotas) to advance the presence of women within their parliaments. Tthese countries are spread out amongst all continents: there are 24 in Africa, 18 in Asia, 2 in North America, 7 in Central America and the Caribbean, 10 in South America, 28 in Europe and only one in Oceania. Proportional to the total number of countries on the continent, quotas (of any kind) are most present in Europe (65.1%), although their adoption on the sub-continent of South America has been most impressive10 out of 12 countries or 83.3%). On the other hand, quotas are almost completely absent in Oceania and remain marginal in Asia (and in the sub-continent of Central America and Caribbean).

During just the last one and a half decade, 50 countries in the world have introduced legal quotas, e.g. quota rules inscribed in constitution or electoral law. In other 50 countries major political parties have introduced gender quotas for their own list for public elections, e.g. voluntary party quotas. The Scandinavian countries' previous world record in women's representation is being challenged by South Africa, Costa Rica, Mozambique, Argentina, not to speak of Rwanda, who now has the highest share of women in parliament in the whole world, 48.8 percent. Gender quotas are part of the explanation behind the exceptional historical leaps in women's representation in all the mentioned countries.

As concerns Asia more specifically, 13 of the 18 (or 72.2%) countries of this continent have reserved seats or legal quotas. In comparison, only 10 of the 24 (41.7%) African countries have reserved seats or legal quotas, and 5 out of the 28 (17.9%) European countries only have legal quotas. Legal quotas as well as party quotas are also very present in South America (8 out of 10 countries of this sub-continent have legal and/or party quotas), as in Africa and Europe, be it in established democracies such as Iceland and Norway, or within newer democracies such as Poland, the Czech Republic or Macedonia.

Prior to the 1990s', however, positive action had been implemented in only a few countries, and in paticular, they found fertile ground in Asia. As such, the adoption of positive action in Asian countries began as early as 1953 with Taiwan's adoption of a 10% reserved seat system for women in legislative bodies. In Pakistan, the 1954, 1956, 1962, 1970, 1973 and 1985 Constitutions all provided for reserved seats for women in the National Assembly. In 1972, Bangladesh first introduced 15 reserved seats (out of 315 in the Jatiyo Sangshad) for a period of 10 years. On other continents, Egypt reserved 30 seats (out of 360) for women in parliament between 1976 and 1986, and in Argentina, roughly one third of candidacies for the Peronist Party were reserved for women as early as 1950.

Globally , the top six countries that have a high percentage of women representation are, as the table shows, Rwanda, Norway, Finland, Denmark , Netherlands and Cuba



Women in National Parliament (%)

Quota Type

Electoral system


48.8 (2003)

Legal quotas (C)

List PR


37,9 (2005)

Party quotas

List PR


37,5 (2002)

No quotas

List PR


36.9 (2005)

No quota

List PR


36.7 (2003)

Party quotas

List PR


36.0 (2003)

No quota

Two Rounds

Two Rounds

It is interesting to note that in three of the countries namely Finland, Denmark and Cuba there is no quota, legal or party. Based on these figures, Individualland would like to suggest that perhaps quotas are not the only option for increasing women legislative space.Individualland would also like to mention that the real boom in women's representation in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden occurred in the 1970s and in Iceland in the 1980s, all before the introduction of any quotas. Gender quotas were introduced when women already comprised 20 to 30 per cent in the parliaments of these small Northern countries

The argument
The demand and in fact the struggle to have reserved seats with the elected houses was based on the rationale that it is only when women are actually sitting in these Houses, are present when bills that effect their lives are being introduced in the Assembly, when in a sense the fate of the nation is being decided, then women should participate and ensure that the voice of the Pakistani woman is heard within the Legislating corridors. This was in a gist, the basis for activism in Pakistan, Asia and infact the world.

Durde Dahlerup (Stockholm University, Sweden) maintains that are two discourses in examining the under representation of women in legislatures i.e. incremental track discourse and the fast track discourse. `According to the incremental track discourse , women do not have as good resources, and/or not the same political resources as men. While prejudice against women is recognized, it is assumed that this will eventually disappear as society develops. In contrast, the fast track discourse rejects the idea of gradual improvement in women's representation. It is assumed that an increase in resources might not automatically lead to equal representation. Exclusion and discrimination are regarded as the core of the problem, the solution to which could very well be affirmative action."

Electoral gender quotas represent 'the fast track' to equal representation of women and men in politics in contrast to 'the incremental track'. Behind the fast track model is a growing impatience with the slow pace of change concerning the position of women in society.

Keeping aside women parliametnatry representation for a minute,when it comes to overall women's political participation three kinds of gender equality strategies are identifed. These are:

> Rhetorical strategies as exemplified by signature of international conventions on women's rights, and official speeches and statements applauding the principles of equal opportunities for women and men;

> Equal opportunity strategies, such as training sessions, special conferences, financial assistance, and access to childcare facilties, which are designed to provide a level playing field so that women can pursue political careers on the same basis as men and

> Positive action strategies, such as reserved seats, statutory gender quotas and voluntary quotas, which are designed to benefit women as a temporary stage until such a time as gender parity is achieved in legislaative bodies

This distinction of three gender equality strategies for women's political representation is, in individualland's opinion, key to the argument for re-thinking quotas or reservations. Being a liberal cyber group, individualland is wary of quotas and reservations of any kind as by it's very nature a reservation or quota is undemocratic, reeks of political under handedness and by virtue of being artificial is not sustainable. Quotas are usually a quick way to pay lip service to a cause without addressing the problem holistically. Individualland would like to submit that if reservation facilitated women's political representation than the Pakistani women after a prolonged experience of reserved seats would not have needed affirmative action in the 21st century.

The submission
Women political representation cannot happen in a vacuum and it is here that this differentiation of gender strategies is important to examine. The experience of Pakistan and even some parts of South Asia has been strategies based on rhetorical strategies and positive action strategies. In other words, while a lot of lip service has been paid to women's political participation, international covenants have been signed , ratified and a number of reserved seats have been introduced from time to time , all this has been happing in a vacuum. The aspect of introducing equal opportunity strategies has not been considered with the result that within the Assemblies , there are able Pakistani women but most of them are apolitical and serving as proxies for their male relatives.

Individualland would like to submit that if women political representation truly is the goal than political advocacy and training for young men and women is the answer. Quotas are short gap measures which further bring up a number of problems. For instance, while the Indian women groups are lobbying for reservation of women's seats, some circles have started demanding that women's seats should be divided equally amongst the various casts. Thus, we see how quotas run the danger of opening a Pandora's Box and the danger of further strengthen regressive social practices.

There is no substitute to political advocacy and sensitization and no short cuts to women's political empowerment. However, that can only happen when politics stops being a dirty word in the Pakistani context and systematic de-politicization attempts are stopped.



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