A long road ahead | Pakistan Today

A long road ahead

  • Our society continues to predominantly equate women’s modesty with docility

One of the most positive trends in the 2018 elections was increased women participation in Pakistan, both in terms of candidates and voter turnout. 176 women candidates ran for general seats of the National Assembly making it the highest number in the history of the country. Similarly, women turned up in great force to cast their votes and get heard at the ballot box. Images of women queuing up for casting votes in traditionally conservative areas were widely circulated on various social networks.

This change was partly driven by the actions undertaken by the Election Commission in Pakistan to ensure increased women participation in the elections. Under the Elections Act 2017, the ECP had more power to push for increased female voter participation. Section 206 of the act made it mandatory for political parties to issue at least 5pc of the tickets to female politicians when selecting the candidates on general seats for national and provincial assemblies. The National Assembly of Pakistan already has a reserved quota of 60 seats for women in addition to the 272 general seats ensuring women representation in the lower house of the national parliament. In addition, for the first time in its history, there was a disaggregation of female votes polled in the 2018 elections.

The legal stipulations forced the politicians to somewhat let go of the conservative notions forbidding women to leave their homes, caste vote and participate politically. Though these changes are positive and should be appreciated, however, it would be naïve to assume that the Pakistani society has accepted women as equals. Women entering the workface are faced with immense pressures and challenges that are rooted in patriarchal traditions. This is especially prominent when women hold a public stature.

Another new development in the 2018 elections was the surge in the usage of social media networks. Pakistan has around 44.6 million internet users with staggering 35 million active users of social media. Recognising its potential, political parties had designated social media cells to convey their political agendas and mobilise voters and party supporters used these platforms to engage in political debates and discussions. Given the increased women participation in the 2018 elections, to assess the public mood, it is an interesting area of research to observe how political campaigns of female politicians were received on social networks.

Legal stipulations and quotas can help reduce the structural challenges that women face when entering difficult fields such as politics

The up-coming report under a collaborative project between Democracy Reporting International (DRI) and Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) deals with this topic. With the aim to explore the gender specific behaviours on social media platforms, the research deals with analysing Facebook comments on pages of 40 female politicians who ran for office in the 2018 elections. The initial list consisted of 70 female politicians but later the accounts which had no posts after January 2018 were removed. In total, 10,455 posts were retrieved from the Facebook pages of these female politicians. To assess the content of the user engagement in detail, the 200 top ranked comments for each post, a total of 234,644 comments, were collected. To do a cross-comparison with the male politicians, around 800,000 comments were extracted for the high-profile male politicians such as Imran khan, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, Nawaz and Shehbaz Sharif.

The preliminary results of the research reveal that there is a clear distinction in the nature of the comments between the female and male politicians. As highlighted in the infographic below, while words like ‘sher,’ ‘power,’ ‘legend,’ ‘hero’ and ‘leader’ are used to refer to the male politicians, words like ‘bechari,’ ‘r**di,’ ‘ga**ti,’ ‘attractive’ and ‘beautiful’ are used to refer to the female politicians.

It was also observed that whenever a female candidate made a post on Facebook that contained a picture or changed her profile picture, within a short span, the post was bombarded with explicit sexist comments. Similarly, there were hardly any comments on the posts which discussed the content or political agenda of the female politicians. Not only were the female candidates subjected to sexism on the social media platforms, but they were also subjected to downright abuse. Though saddening, this is not an alarming finding.

Despite meagre progress in some areas, our society continues to predominantly equate women’s modesty with docility. The burden of protecting the so-called honour of the family and society is placed on the shoulders of women. Any transgression from the traditional role of a woman is met with extreme scepticism. The self-sufficiency and independence of women is at best, tolerated. Otherwise, it quickly becomes a case of society’s failure to uphold some utopian sense of morality. Hence, when not in agreement, a woman confidently occupying public space becomes an object of contempt and abuse. She becomes a threat whose mitigation becomes a collective responsibility of the society.

Legal stipulations and quotas can help reduce the structural challenges that women face when entering difficult fields such as politics. However, true women empowerment cannot take place unless and until we challenge the patriarchal norms guiding conventional thinking about women. For women to become truly productive members of the society, they need to be first treated as equal citizens commanding respect. Looking at slurs on social media networks directed towards female political candidates during the last elections, it seems like we are a long way from achieving that goal. 

Shaheera Syed

The author has an academic background in Public Policy with a specialization in International Conflict Management and is currently working for Democracy Reporting International, a Berlin-based NGO supporting political participation. She tweets @s_syed_s

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