On July 25, millions of Pakistanis – including women – exercised their civic rights to usher in a new era of leadership on the promises of a new Pakistan. In all five provinces, women exercised their fundamental right guaranteed under the Pakistani Constitution and turned out to vote in record numbers (from 30 percent to 50 percent). In some instances, it was for the first time.
The incoming prime minister, Imran Khan, is a former cricket-star-turned-politician who won widespread support in a country struggling from decades of political turmoil, a failing economy and rising secularism. The struggle of women’s rights amid the current democratic election in Pakistan requires a re-commitment in advancing widespread opportunity within the public policy arena. These women hope one day to partake in the same opportunities as their male counterparts. Currently, such opportunities remain grossly out of reach for the following reasons.
Access to education limited
Even though voter turnout was high, a large number of the female contingency lacks access to an elementary education. The female literary rate is relatively low in most provinces and even lower in some areas.
This fundamental lack of access to early education sets girls on a lifelong path of disadvantage compared to their male counterparts. Further, such inequality diminishes their personal growth and limits their negotiating power in seeking a seat at the table in later years. While boys may be groomed for a life of public office and equipped with educational opportunity from the onset, females are steered toward more traditional roles (homemakers, for example) within Pakistani society.
Socio-religious norms keep gender gap wide
The predominance of Pakistan’s socio-religious norms, which largely reflect age-old patriarchal power structures both within and outside the home, generates a false perception of self-worth and further diminishes the public role of females.
These power structures are rarely disputed due to a lack of gender parity in public roles. The parity gets wider as we get into more sophisticated roles. In turn, these norms reduce the essence of individual expression and freedom. Hence, Pakistan’s female population has an urgent need for creating pathways for females roles that will define a new brand of gender policy.
Females allocated less than 20 percent of assembly seats
In a country where politics and policy-making largely remains a male-dominated field, female candidates are few and far between, reflective of the post-colonial era of dynasty politics. As such, things stay largely the same. Currently, women are limited to 60 of the 342 seats in the National Assembly. In the broader context, women need to form greater coalitions and muster support for women’s issues within the larger patriarchy.
In most instances, females experience a lifelong pattern of social stigma that shadows their careers and hampers them from participating in decision-making efforts compared to their male counterparts. As a result, female participation in policy remains largely absent, and change that improves women’s lives is slow to happen.
Answers remain unclear
Will the current wave of political activism carry the women’s suffrage alongside change in the long term? Will existing socio-religious barriers give way to creating conducive pathways for civic participation and engagement?
While answers to those questions remain to be seen, women are anxious to take their seat alongside men in steering much-needed reforms that battle stigmas and open up pathways for widespread engagement as the current election ushers in a new era of political activism.