For Pakistan's women, election quotas are a start

Today's local elections are the third test at the polls of the military regime's attempts at political reform.

Pakistan's military regime has no shortage of critics. But as 20 districts prepare for local elections today, the quota system that reserves one-third of seats for women is earning positive marks from some feminists.

"These elections are addressing the strategic gender needs for women. There is now new space for women, which gives them legal and political entitlement for the first time," says activist Baela Jamil.

While Gen. Pervez Musharraf's plan for political reform has been criticized by the two parties who have alternated rule for most of the past dozen years, some rights activists say opportunities for women now are greater even than during the tenure of the Islamic world's first woman prime minister. Benazir Bhutto twice headed governments during Pakistan's 11 years of democracy from 1988 to 1999.

Women such as 20-something college graduate Hameeda Waheeduddin got her first opportunity to enter politics this year when she became president of her union council in the town of Mandi Bahauddin in central Punjab, the country's largest province. Responsibilities of the country's approximately 7,000 union councils include running schools and local health services - and, in the future, imposing taxes.

"I had a clear victory in every polling station in my constituency," Ms. Waheeduddin told a gathering of newly elected women at a seminar in Islamabad. "People were willing to give me a chance because they thought I could change their lives."

Shazia Elahi Sethi, another president of a union council near the city of Sialkot in central Punjab, said that "in a male-dominated political environment, change is becoming a reality with the quota." Ms. Sethi described how, while on the campaign trail, she left home every morning accompanied by 40 or 50 men, demonstrating that her support came from men as well as women.

According to the Aurat Foundation, an advocacy group for women's rights, between 85 and 90 percent of women's seats in the first two of six phases of the local elections were filled. (After today, three more sets of elections will be held by mid-August.) But supporters of the military's plan are under pressure to show how political power can quickly change the status of women in a country with many condemned anti-women practices.

For years, feminists have campaigned against the practice of honor killings, in which a male member of a family considers it his right to preserve the family's honor and kill his sister, mother, daughter, or wife on the mere suspicion of extramarital relations. During the first phase of elections in December, a woman candidate in Punjab was killed by her husband because she refused to withdraw from the contest, but the couple reportedly had other differences that sparked the killing. Other controversial practices include demands for the introduction of sharia, or Islamic holy law. The laws prescribe, for example, that evidence in court from two women would be considered equivalent to that of one man.

Critics of the quotas also say that power will remain in the hands of a limited group of families; Waheeduddin's late father, for example, was a member of the provincial legislature. Yet others say the new opportunities are an important step. "The change may not come overnight," says attorney Shehla Zia, "But eventually change will come, simply because there will be more women in grass-roots politics who would be seeking that change," she says.

Mainstream political parties that have denounced General Musharraf's political reforms have also criticized women's groups for their stance. One political leader who spoke on the condition of anonymity says: "A military regime is an anomaly, it's an illegal government. How can anyone support democratization under the generals, who don't have their own legitimacy?"

According to Nigar Ahmed, head of the Aurat Foundation, "There's no element of discomfort" over the military's backing for the elections. "Either we could have ignored these elections, or we could support them," she says. "We supported them because no government in future would be able to turn around and say that there aren't any women out there to contest."

For first-time politicians such as Waheeduddin, the opportunity of making an entry into politics is more important than who is behind them. For women aspiring to improve their social status, she advises women to take charge of their lives and to go "for political office as the first step."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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