Politics in Pakistan is not just for men | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 01.05.2013
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Asia

Politics in Pakistan is not just for men

The elections in Pakistan will be special this year. Not only because a civilian government has completed its term of office regularly for the first time. Now ordinary women also want to get involved in politics.

Even today one of the most popular politicians of Pakistan is a woman. Benazir Bhutto, former Prime Minister, who was killed in an assassination in 2007 is still considered as a role model by many - not just women.

In the past years a new trend has emerged in Pakistan: More and more women are now active in political parties, for example Maryam Nawaz Sharif, a candidate for the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). But women are also becoming politically active in Pakistan's tribal areas.

Badam Zari, is running as candidate for the general election on May 11. And she is ready to risk her life. Zari is going to represent Bajaur, one of seven districts along the border of Afghanistan, which are known as a retreat for Taliban fighters and al Qaeda terrorists. The case of the 15-year old activist Malala Yousafzai - shot in the head by terrorists on her way home from school last year - has shown exactly how dangerous it is to fight for women's rights in the conservative tribal areas of Pakistan.

Badam Zari is the first female candidate from the tribal areas Photo:STR/AFP/Getty Images

Badam Zari is the first female candidate from the tribal areas on the frontier

Conservative gender roles

The country, especially the northwest, is known for its extremely conservative gender roles. Women mostly stay at home. Outside they are only seen with burkhas, covering their body and faces with a veil. Only three percent of women can read or write. Badam Zari herself is not highly educated. "My decision to compete in the election is not only to give women courage in general but also to focus on their problems and needs," Zari said, explaining her candidacy at a press conference in Pakistan.

According to the latest Global Gender Gap Report of the World Economic Forum, there are more women proportionally in Pakistan’s parliament than in the United Kingdom or the United States. However, when it came to the issue of gender equality in general, Pakistan did not get a good rating. "The issue of women in politics is as unresolved as in other countries," said Christian Wagner of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). In recent years, a positive trend could be noted in the participation of women in politics. According to Wagner, political parties now also want to benefit from it. "The Pakistan People's Party has a number of very strong female candidates who could get the decisive votes in certain constituencies."

In the Pakistan National Assembly, in principle, 60 of 342 seats are reserved for women. "There is already a quota for women in parliament, but the parties themselves have none," Britta Petersen, head of the office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Islamabad, told the DW. "But I think something is changing. And that is giving Pakistani women courage," she added.

Pakistani female candidates for the upcoming general election Photo: A. MAJEED/AFP/Getty Images

Many women have had themselves registered as candidates for the upcoming general elections

Petersen says the past government has passed a lot of female-friendly laws. A women's parliamentary caucus was even formed. It includes female politicians from all parties. Their main task is to work on issues that are of interest to women, and to improve women’s rights nationwide. 

A long road to equality

According to Britta Petersen, Pakistani politics are strongly influenced by the local feudal system. A majority of the seats in the parliament are occupied by well-known and wealthy families. This also accounts for many women who are active in Pakistani politics. "Most of the women in the parliament and in leading positions of major parties come from families with a long political tradition," Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political analyst from Pakistan, told DW. An increasing number of women was notable in some of the smaller political parties that were strongly dominated by the middle class, he added.

Above all, a lack of education and social taboos are a major obstacle for women who seek a political career in Pakistan says Rizvi. Despite this, Pakistani women have proven that they willing to fight for more rights in the past years. "In the last legislature the women from the parliamentary caucus proposed that the quota for women in the parliament should be increased," said Petersen.

Nasreen Jalil is a member of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a liberal party in Pakistan.

Britta Petersen from the Heinrich Böll Stiftung in Pakistan

Britta Petersen believes that the participation of female politicians is a good sign

"I have been politically active in Pakistan since 1988," said Jalil, who believes this was only possible with the support of her family, something upon which many women cannot rely. Many women also lack the finances to establish themselves within politics.

Gradually moving forward

Hasan Askari Rizvi believes the change in Pakistan politics is slow but steady. According to him, women are already a lot more active in politics. The fact that a woman from the tribal areas is running as a candidate has come as a big surprise for everyone. "She is most probably not going to win the election but it is a clear sign," he said.

While women still have to go a long way before they are seen as equals in Pakistan’s male-dominated society, the trend would seem to be moving in the that direction.

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