The representation of religious minorities, especially women, remains inadequate
omen belonging to minority communities have a limited chance in Pakistan to be represented in local governments.Their representation in the Provincial and National Assemblies is almost non-existent.
This may well be one of the reasons why, while preparations for elections are in full swing in some circles, most women belonging to minority groups remain aloof.
Maryam Bhatti, 45, is a resident of Dawood Nagar area of Faisalabad. She was elected to a seat reserved for minorities from Union Council 55 in the 2015 local body elections.She says she has reservations concerning representation of women from the Christian community.
Bhatti says she had been teaching sewing and embroidery to girls for free at sewing centreset up in a room of her house.She had also been participating in other welfare work. That was why, she says, the community elders in the area asked her to participate in the elections.
“I accepted the offer hoping that this would give me an opportunity to be more useful for my community, but the experience was not a very pleasant one,” she tells TheNews on Sunday.
Bhatti says that she was not invited to participate in the union council meetings. “When I went any way, I was not consulted,” she says, adding that the chairman and vice-chairman used to take most of the decision themselves.The proceedings were quickly terminated as approval of their decisions by the councilors was a mere formality
“I was told that I should stay at home. Overall, I felt that these men were not prepared to offer me, a non-Muslim woman, a significant role,” says Bhatti. “My desire to participate in the political process just died down,” she adds.
“If women from religious minorities are discriminated against at the local government level, then how will they get effective representation bigger forums?” she asks.
The experience of Nasreen Gabriel, 55, from Khushpurvillage in Samundaritehsil was different. She started her political journey in the 2002 local elections and was elected a town member against a reserved seat twice in a row. In the 2015 municipal elections, she was elected on a seat reserved for minorities from Union Council 81,WarisPura,in City tehsil.
Nasreen says the main reason why she was elected twice was that she enjoyed strongsupportby the Christian community as well as Muslim voters.
She also says whenfunds were released for development workat the town level, she was asked to propose and supervise development schemes on par with other members.
She says she believes that the continuation of the local government system can ensure active participation by minority women. “Local bodies are the nurseries that can contribute to the political advancement and empowerment of women from religious minorities,” she says. She adds that while picking candidates for elections the political parties should allocate a five percent quota for minorities.
“In 2018, I wanted to participate in the election for a seat reserved for women or minorities in the Provincial Assembly.However, no political party supported me,” she recalls. She says that Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf promised to elect another person belonging to her community to a seat reserved for minorities. However, the promise was not fulfilled.
She also says that a lot of money is spent on campaigning in the provincial and national assembly elections that no woman belonging to the minority community can even consider participating in the general elections on their own.
“When making nominations for reserved seats, some political parties seem to prioritiseproximity and loyalty to their leadersover a potential candidate’s performance. This has resulted in some good candidates being neglected,” she says.
“The number of Christian voters in my area [WarisPura] exceeds 40,000. In spite of this, the winning candidates often ignore them.The minority members of the assembly, elected on reserved seats, also go unheard as they are not directly elected,” she says.
According to the information obtained from the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics under the Right to Information Act, statistical analysis at the district and tehsil levels following the 2023 census has not been completed. According to the census conducted in 2017, the non-Muslim population of the Punjab included 2,063,063 Christians, 198,251 Hindus, 15,821Ahmedis, 13,390 people belonging to Scheduled Castes and 15,328 followers of other religions.
There were 7,606,012 Muslims and 276,432 non-Muslims in Faisalabad’s population of 7,882,444.
The non-Muslim population of Faisalabad included 264,677 Christians, 10,959Ahmedis, 350 Hindus, 248 members of Scheduled Castes and 198 followers of other religions.
Thus, according to the 2017 census, the ratio of non-Muslims in Faisalabad was 3.5 percent of the total population. At the provincial level this ratio was 2.33 percent. Despite this, the representation of Christian women from Faisalabad was negligible.
A total of 62,274 representatives were elected for 4,244 local bodies in the 2015 elections in the Punjab. About 15 percent of them were women, seven percent were laborers or farmers, seven percent were youth councilors and five percent were non-Muslim representatives.
However, on the 4,015 seats reserved for non-Muslim candidates, only 2,690 candidates submitted nomination papers so that 1,325 seats remained vacant.The number of women candidates was less than one percent.
These figures show that there is a need for more practical steps to attract women belonging to minorities to participate in the electoral process.
According to a research paper titled Christian Participation In Politics: A Case Study Of Punjab by Toba Ahmed, a PhD scholar at the Department of Political Science, Government College University, Faisalabad, the joint electorate is not in harmony with the social norms of the country.She says most Muslim voterstend not to vote for non-Muslim candidates.
In a survey conducted for this research, 68 percent of people belonging to the Christian community said that joint elections help reduce the gap between the majority and the minority. However, 17 percent disagreed with them and 15 percent did not express an opinion.
Furthermore, 59 percent of the participants expressed satisfaction with the special seats reserved for minorities and the selection process.However, 33 percent disagreed with them and 8 percent did not express any opinion.Also, 54 percent of the participants expressed satisfaction with the rights given to minorities in the constitution while 25 percent disagreed with them and 20 percent did not express any opinion.
It should be noted that according to Article 51 of the constitution, 60 seats have been reserved for women and 10 for non-Muslims in the National Assembly. 66 seats have been reserved for women and eight for non-Muslims in the Punjab Assembly under Article 106. 16 seats are reserved for women and four for non-Muslims in the Senate of Pakistan.
Only one non-Muslim member was elected against the 126 seats reserved for women and there was only one woman among 18 people elected against seats reserved for non-Muslims in the National Assembly and Punjab Assembly in the general elections held in 2018.
Shuhnila Ruth was nominated by the PTI for the National Assembly on a seat reserved for non-Muslims. Joyce Ruffin Julius was nominated by the PML-N on a seat reserved for women in the Punjab Assembly.
Apart from this, KeshooBai, belonging to the Hindu community, was nominated by the PPP for a seat reserved for women in the Senate of Pakistan.No woman was nominated against the four seats reserved for non-Muslims.
AzmaBokhari, the PML-NPunjab information secretary, claims that hers was the only political party that gave minority women the right to be represented on seats reserved for women in the provincial and national assembly in 2013 and 2018.
“Currently, PML-N is the only party in which women are represented in the highest positions. In the upcoming general elections too, wherever women are in a position to win the general seats, they will be given the opportunity to contest the election without any discrimination.More women from the minorities will be given the opportunity to be represented on the basis of merit in the seats reserved for women in the national and provincial assemblies,” she says.
Bokhari says workers belonging to the minority wing of the party were given the opportunity of representation on the basis of their performance. She agreed that there is room for more steps to be taken in this regard.
Shazia George, executive director of the Association of Women for Awareness and Motivation says that along with constitutional reforms to increase the participation of minority women in the political process, the political culture prevailing in the country needs to change.
She says that 20 years of the introduction of joint electorate, party workers belonging to inorities, especially women, remain under represented except in the minority wings. “In the riots that took place in Jaranwala, the Christian population was targeted on a large scale, but no political party openly supported the victims,” she says.
Shazia says there is a need to fix quotasfor minority women within the seats reserved for women in all the elected houses to ensure their representation in the political process. “On the face of it, the participation of minorities, especially women, at all levels in the country is being promoted. In practice, their participation in decision-making is still negligible,” she adds.
Shazia says the absence of a transparent selection procedure in political parties for nominations on specific seats reserved for non-Muslims is a major obstacle to effective representation of minorities, especially women.
“Despite these issues I strongly believe that joint electorate is a step towards inclusion,” she says.
Peter Jacob, director of the Centre for Social Justice, says that separate electorates were abolished in 2002 without consultation with the stakeholders. He says there is a dire need for reforms to ensure effective representation. “Besides concerns among religious minorities about the effectiveness of the nomination process on reserved seats, there are questions about the accountability and accessibility of those representing minority voters in the current political system,” he says.
Tahir Mehdi, journalist, election observer and author of a report titled Making Elections Credible, says that allocation of seats or quotas for women is not the right solution. “This amounts to advancing a policy of ignoring discriminatory barriers without challenging them. It is clear that allocating seats for women 20 years ago has not improved their chances of contesting general seats,” he says.
“A political party polling a fixed number of women’s votes in the general elections should get a proportional share in the seats reserved for women. Else, there should be clusters of contiguous constituencies that make up constituencies for seat reserved for women,” he suggests.
Mehdi believes that the goal of inclusiveness or gender equality in politics cannot be achieved unless reserved seats for women are linked to constituency politics.
The writer has been associated with journalism for the past decade. He tweets @ naeemahmad876