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Old Thursday, October 21, 2010
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Default Women in the lead

By I.A. Rehman
Thursday, 21 Oct, 2010 (DAWN)

THANKS to the extraordinary exertions of the prophets of doom whatever good that is still being done by the people of Pakistan is often ignored.

For example, the citizens’ shining example of relief work in the flood-affected areas is not properly appreciated. Also going largely unnoticed is the contribution women parliamentarians are making in the area of legislation.

One can easily recall the resistance the women organisations had faced when they demanded reservation of at least 33 per cent of the seats in all legislatures for women. Many thought it would be impossible to find the required number of women qualified to work as legislators. Some other observers asserted that women parliamentarians would be mere showpieces (these people were not bothered about a majority of the male legislators falling in that category). These sceptics were proved wrong within a couple of years of the increase in women’s seats in the national and provincial assemblies before the 2002 general election.

As shown in a survey (Aurat Foundation, 2009), women members of the National Assembly did better than their male counterparts during 2002-2007. While holding only 20 per cent of the Assembly seats they moved 101 private members’ bills as against 139 by the far more numerous male members, or 42 per cent of the total.

Despite the adverse effects the prolonged political turmoil has had on the working of the present National Assembly women parliamentarians have not ignored their legislative responsibilities. They have contributed a good number of the 100 or so private members’ bills moved since the house was formed in 2008.

Unfortunately, two factors have prevented women parliamentarians from bringing their work to fruition. First, their initiatives rarely receive the government support they deserve. The story of the Domestic Violence Bill is a scandal any responsible government would have done its best to avoid. The bill was ignored by the previous government. Reintroduced in 2008 it was somehow adopted by the National Assembly but then it lapsed because the government failed to introduce it in the Senate within the stipulated time. Now the bill will have to go through the National Assembly again. The two bills relating to women’s protection against sexual harassment enacted this year might have faced a similar fate if women activists had not responded in time to signs of prevarication, even of hostility to reform, on the official benches.

Secondly, women parliamentarians share the frustration of their male counterparts caused by the scheme of private members’ business. The last National Assembly found time to adopt only one private member’s bill out of 240 because that bill sought to guarantee the people’s most fundamental right to partake of a wedding feast.

The present National Assembly has done better than its predecessor house in that it has already adopted five private members’ bills. The government has also done well by giving up the past regimes’ practice of blocking the admission of private members’ bills.

However, the need to review Rule 28 of the Federal Rules of Business, under which the cabinet is required to decide the fate of a private member’s bill, is manifest. The condition that even after a private member’s bill has been admitted it can be taken up only on a day fixed for private members’ business (that is only on a Tuesday) should be reconsidered and, if possible, removed.Another matter causing anxiety to women parliamentarians and their supporters among the democratically minded people is the element of uncertainty concerning the survival of the system of proportional representation on which the present method of filling women’s reserved seats is based.

Since seats for women in a legislature are a fraction of the total seats the method of their election has been a problem that students of politics and rights activists have been grappling with for more than 70 years. The Act of 1935 was the only constitution that put the method of women’s election in a schedule while all subsequent constitutions have left the matter to be decided by law, and it has not been possible to avoid indirect election and reliance on the principle of proportional representation.

The argument by purists and women activists themselves that women legislators should be directly elected is impressive in theory but no satisfactory formula to implement it has been found. The culture of democracy in Pakistan is too weak to allow experiments such as India has made by earmarking constituencies from where only Dalits can be elected. All other proposals, such as creation of some double-member (one man, another woman) constituencies or dividing the country into as many constituencies as there are seats for women, have been found to discriminate against women. This problem will remain insoluble until Pakistani society accepts women’s right to equality with men and the need for reserving seats for them disappears.

Meanwhile, the discussion on the mode of women’s election to legislatures must not be premised on the possibility of creating a bar to the system of proportional representation in Pakistan. In the course of the decades-old debate on electoral reforms quite a few experts have advocated a complete replacement of the first-past-the-post system of election with proportional representation.

Much greater support is available for the proposal to fill a certain percentage of seats in legislatures through proportional representation. A strong case can be made for making the legislatures better representative of our pluralist society by reserving seats for peasants and workers and electing them through a proportional system.

However, so far as women are concerned they are entitled to have matters decided in their best interest. And women parliamentarians have already established their right to not only larger political space but also to delineate their path to the goal of gender equality.

Tailpiece: Writing on the Babri Masjid case a few days before the Allahabad High Court delivered its verdict, Mr Rajindar Sachar, former judge and a leading human rights campaigner in India, said that even if the court found that a temple had existed on the land where the mosque had been raised, the suit by Vishwa Hindu Parishad/Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh had to be dismissed. He mentioned the precedent of the 1940 case concerning Masjid Shahid Ganj in Lahore. The Privy Council had ruled: “The property now in question having been possessed by Sikhs adversely to the Waqf and to all interests thereunder for more than 12 years, the right of the mutwalli to possession for the purposes of the Waqf came to an end under the Limitation Act.”

Another argument given by Sachar was that “even a rightful heir, if he kills his ancestor, forfeits his right of inheritance. In the Masjid case too, there was ‘murder most foul’ and hence the murderer cannot be allowed to take the benefit of his own dastardly deeds, whatever the legal position may be”.

Mr Sachar’s stand leads to two conclusions. First, he has not been made to suffer for his forthrightness. Second, he has helped us understand the meanings of “political judgments wrapped in legal jargon”.
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