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Ready to run?

Opinion

June 12, 2016

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From a global perspective, some would argue that Pakistani women have fewer opportunities and freedoms than American women. So why are Pakistani women more politically ambitious than American women?

In a recent academic article in the International Political Science Review, through surveys of particpants in the Pakistani Lawyers’ Movement, we show that nascent political ambition among elite Pakistani women is at similar levels to eligible Pakistani men. Nascent ambition is the interest in holding a political office in general, and this stage precedes a decision to enter a specific political contest or race.

Both women and men who were part of the lawyers’ movement have high levels of nascent political ambition. This is in contrast to the established liberal democracy of the US where eligible women have lower levels of nascent political ambition than eligible men. However, expressive political ambition, which refers to concrete steps taken towards running for office, is relatively low for both men and women participants of the Pakistani lawyers’ movement. Moreover, in comparison to eligible Pakistani men, expressive political ambition is significantly lower for eligible Pakistani women, due to the presence of informal norms in Pakistani society.

Through logit analysis of our data we find that the most important factors determining whether someone had ever considered running for office in Pakistan are as follows: having connections with politicians; having interacted with politicians in one’s job; receiving a suggestion to run from a family member; and, the self-perceived chance of winning. Although these factors may be important in liberal democracies such as the US, these factors seem more pronounced in the electoral democracies where family connections matter more.

Being female or being part of a minority are not significant predictors of nascent political ambition in this case. Astonishingly insignificant differences in nascent ambition among female Pakistani eligibles than their male counterparts could have resulted from the following three factors: First, the female participants in our dataset are more ambitious than the typical woman in Pakistan. Second, in electoral democracies with reserved seats for women, gender may interact with political connections and individual personality to increase nascent ambition for those with connections.

And lastly, the presence of nationally visible female executive role-models like Benazir Bhutto, whom 52 percent of our sample listed as an inspiring contemporary leader, coupled with the fact that 17 percent of national and parliamentary seats are reserved for women may have led to comparatively higher levels of nascent political ambition among women in Pakistan.

Although we demonstrate that the idea of running for office does cross the minds of Pakistani women who have education and professional occupations associated with the eligibility to run for political office, many of these educated professional women in Pakistan still rule out actually running for office, because doing so still challenges many informal norms. Examples of these informal norms include ideas that unaccompanied women should not travel and participate in public spaces without male relatives and that women should care for family members rather than devote themselves to public life.

Expressive political ambition, which includes discussing running for office with community or party leaders, seeking contributions, or finding out how to get one’s name on a ballot, is significantly lower for eligible (to run) women than eligible men. Pakistani female eligibles reported more concerns with how their electoral bids would affect their families. For example, these women are more concerned about spending less time with their families, the effects of negative campaigning on their families, and the loss of privacy. Surprisingly, 48 percent of these women said a loss of privacy would deter them from running for office, whereas just 12 percent of the men stated this reason.

This research gives us some reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the future of democracy in Pakistan. We find that many talented men and women in Pakistan possess nascent political ambition. Nearly 70 percent of all movement participants indicated that running for political office had at least crossed their minds, although only one percent said they had taken concrete steps to put their name names on the ballot.

Second, there is no statistically significant difference in nascent political ambition among Pakistani women and men in our sample. Admittedly, the women who participated in the movement were more educated and elite compared to Pakistani women at large, and also had more skills and access to resources. However, despite skills and qualifications, these women viewed themselves as less qualified to run than their male counterparts, suggesting that family and community encourgement to contest elections or run for any office is still necessary.

Third, and related, although men and women both face barriers in converting from nascent to expressive political ambition given the clientelistic nature of Pakistani politics, women are more hindered than men by factors such as familial concerns and concerns about loss of privacy. Men demonstrate expressive ambition through speaking to community leaders about running for office, whereas women demonstrate expressive ambition by speaking to a party leader, showing the influence of reserved seats in structuring women’s candidacies.

Women face a different set of challenges in Pakistan’s electoral democracy than in the liberal democracy of the US. It is notable that Pakistani men and women in the lawyers’ movement were equally likely to say that running for office had crossed their minds. This is in contrast to larger findings in the US, where women are less likely than equally positioned men to say that they had considered running for political office.

It may be that American women’s higher average standard of living yields higher opportunity costs of running for office. In contrast, eligible Pakistani women recognise the value of running for office and have experience with visible executive role models, but may lack family support or fear targeted violence again them as female elected officials. For women in Pakistan brave enough to participate in the Pakistani Lawyers’ Movement, running for office has crossed their minds. But for the time being, in the current institutional environment, many eligible women active in the movement have ruled this option out.

For a full version of the results and analysis please refer to: Rincker, Meg, Aslam, Ghazia and Mujtaba Isani. ‘Crossed My Mind, But Ruled It Out: Political Ambition and Gender in the Pakistani Lawyers’ Movement 2007-09,’ International Political Science Review (forthcoming), 2016.

The writers are US-based academics.

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