Political Empowerment of Women in Pakistan
By Mrs. Asma Afzal Shami
“Equality of status, equality of opportunity, equal pay for equal work and guarantee of rights for Muslim women under the Muslim Personal Law of Shariah” were apart of the Charter of Women’s Rights, prepared by Begum Jahan Ara Shahnawaz. The Charter was passed by the Constituent Assembly with an overwhelming majority, in spite of the fact that Mr. Zafarullah, who was chairing the meeting, opposed the bill. It was his contention that a newborn state could not afford this “luxury”, especially as British Prime Minister even Mr. Churchill had refused to agree to equal pay for equal work for women in Britain. Therefore, the adoption of this charter was certainly a great victory for both the lady parliamentarians in particular, and the women of Pakistan in general.
However, the landmark legislation of that era was the acceptance in the 1956 Constitution, of the principle of female suffrage for the seats reserved for women, allocated on the basis of special territorial constituencies. This, in effect granted women dual voting rights – one for general seats and the other for the reserved women’s seats. The importance and potential of this right towards the political empowerment of women was apparently not fully grasped by the framers of our subsequent constitutions. Hence it was abolished in the 1962 Constitution, which replaced it with a system of indirect elections. This stipulated that henceforth the elected members of the Assemblies would elect women members for the reserved women seats. As voting would obviously be on party lines, women candidates would therefore be selected by their party bosses rather than elected by their real constituents i.e. the women of Pakistan. This in fact turned women members into “token representatives”. Unfortunately, this concept of indirect elections was retained in the 1973 Constitution.
During the 1970 Election campaign, Mr. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto emerged as the clear front runner in the Punjab and Sind, particularly among the poorer segment of civil society. His message had a special fascination for women who were encouraged to believe that, in a PPP regime that would provide “Roti, Kapra aur Makaan,” they too could develop as dignified human beings in their own right. Thus, for the first time, women voted for the candidates of their own choice, irrespective of their husband’s desires. This was a big step in the political empowerment of women at the grass roots level.