During the initial phase of our work one of the key focus was documenting the perspectives/narratives of multiple women groups in AJK through meetings and focus group discussions. Since in AJK the number of women entering public space for professional or political reasons, is comparatively quite limited, the perspective of women does not get its due space in the discussions on policy and planning at various levels. During our discussions with women we came up with various major issues and challenges that are faced by women in AJK and have a direct bearing on them. . A close analysis of these issues and challenges reveals that for visualizing a significant role for women in any society, they should be socially and politically empowered. Women should be given spaces at social and political level where they can bring in their perspectives on various issues concerning them and the society in which they are living. However, it is a fact that meaningful engagement of women in any patriarchal society is a challenging and gradual process which requires consistent interventions at many levels.
Keeping this scenario in consideration and building on our previous work, one of the key areas that we identified as crucial for engagement is to debate and discuss about Women’s political Participation in AJK. As I already mentioned in my previous feedback that in AJK the presence of women in political leadership roles in a rare phenomenon as there is a long history of exclusion and absence of women in the political arena. Politics is considered to be a male domain, and there are very few spaces for women to participate in politics. From social and cultural perspective political domain is not considered appropriate for women. Due to long history of women’s exclusion from politics, women might not be found well versed with the political intricacies and tactics, which is used as an argument for not relying on their political expertise as leaders. This almost absence of women from top level power circles gets reflected in the policy and planning as well, which may not always prove to be much gender sensitive.
In this socio-political scenario we planned to take up the case of Women’s Political Participation in AJK in strategic and practical manner. So far, in AJK, there has never been any major debate concerning the significance of the participation of women in the political arena. Seizing the opportunity of charged political temperature in AJK due to elections July 2016, we organized a roundtable titled “Women’s Political Participation in AJ&K: Challenges and Opportunities” on 27 May 2016, wherein Women of AJK called for enhancing political empowerment in upcoming elections. Women activists from AJK hailing from different walks of life demanded government and political parties to pay deeper attention on political empowerment of women in AJK. The main objectives of the roundtable were to start discourse/discussion on the key issue of representation concerning women, and to sensitize people about the need and significance of this discourse.
Furthering on the above area of engagement, the second meeting on women’s political participation was held in post-election phase on 14 August, 2016, on a more focused theme i.e. Enhancing Spaces for Women through Local Bodies. From a realistic perspective we cannot expect enhanced spaces for women in representation to be achieved all at once but it has to be done in a systematic and consistent way. Generating discourse on this crucial theme is the most significant tool because it is an issue of concern and relevance for AJK women at all levels from grass roots to the above level. A discourse which is inclusive of multiple voices, and which is developed after engaging with women groups from various social and professional groups will definitely have a powerful impact and is more likely to get positive response. Such a discourse is visualized as a critical step towards gender mainstreaming through political representation. In order to develop a shared analysis and to come up with some concrete findings we organized a day long session with women academicians, educationists, political and social activists on the above theme.
The discussion was divided into two sessions. Session one focused on a critical analysis of the social, political and cultural setup in AJK in which we are generating discourse on enhancing spaces for representation of women in political arena. One of the key focus in this session was the identification of challenges and barriers which act as hindrances for women who aspire to take up active public roles especially politics which is quite a demanding field. Following points came up during session one.
The social, cultural and political context: Generally the social, cultural and political context in AJK is not very supportive and facilitating for majority of women who aspire for political activism and representation. The society is dominantly inclined towards the traditional cultural stereotypes which works on categorization of public and private spheres along gender.
Social stigmatization: There is an element of Social stigmatization regarding participation of women in politics. One common (mis)perception is that if a woman is in politics she does not fit into the social definition of a good woman because politics is considered to be a ‘dirty’ sphere especially for woman. So, this stigmatization of politics builds a lot of social pressure on those women and their families who want to join politics. Hence these social and cultural barriers are added hindrances especially for women which male members of society are not faced with.
Lack of family support: Under such social pressure, Families are not very appreciative and encouraging towards the political aspirations of women .Hence, Lack of family support acts as a crucial barrier for these women.
Division of responsibilities along gender: In patriarchal societies like AJK the main responsibility of a women in considered to be family and home. If a woman takes up professional roles and choses to pursue career of her choice, she has to deal and manage with the challenge of dual responsibility of home and career. Family responsibilities act as major pull back force for women with political and professional aspirations.
Political Parties: One main barrier for women is the structure and system of political parties in AJK.The political parties issue tickets to candidates on the basis of higher chances for success and to candidates who are financially and politically strong. The political Parties are therefore reluctant to encourage new candidates and especially women.
After first session’s discussion on broader context the second session focused on exploring more focused steps to deal with such a challenging context. Following are the key points of this discussion.
The positive thing to note is that the social, cultural, and political situation with respect to women in AJK has changed a lot as compared to past. For example, there is a significant increase in the literacy rate of women. Most of the families in urban areas of AJK are not equally investing in education of their children, both boys and girls.A good number of females from AJK is now taking up higher education in various universities of Pakistan. This qualified female lot is an untapped potential which can be very significant for raisings concerns of AJK women at various levels and which can prove very effective in lobbying for the increased representation of women at all levels.
Secondly women in AJK are now joining more diverse professions other than teaching. For example, banking, law, IT, medical and engineering, business and commerce, and to a limited extent judiciary and police as well. Professions like law, police, banking, which were once considered inappropriate for women are now gradually taken up by the young and qualified females of AJK.This changing trend is very important in redefining the role and status of women in our society. It has permeated through the boundaries of stereotypes which reinforced strict categorization of male and female.
As far as the political sphere is concerned, change is quite visible here also. If we closely observe the situation in recent July 2016 elections in AJK, we will come to know that as compared to past, women have been very active in election caimpaign.They have very actively campaigned for almost all major political parties in AJK. I got the opportunity to interact with a lot of women who had been quite active in these elections. They stated that it has been quite a learning experience for them and it has increased their public connectivity as well as political awareness and has been very important n boosting their confidence.
These social, cultural and political development have quite significant implications for women of AJK and we need to capitalize on these changing trends in the favor of women.
Enhancing Spaces for Women through Local Bodies
The participants stressed on active lobbying and advocacy for enhancing spaces for women in representation through local bodies. The participants said that there should be reserved quota for women in future local bodies elections of AJK. If women get more space at local bodies level , these local bodies will serve as nurseries for their political training as they will get opportunity to seek and handle leadership roles at comparatively smaller levels, where they will have chance to establish direct connection with the public. There are increased chances that the presence of women in local bodies leadership will be important for addressing the exclusive issues concerning women. The allocation of quota for females in local bodies will also add gender dynamics to the political scenario of AJK which would create space for gender sensitive approach at various levels like: be it their party manifestos, party system and structuring, allocation of funds, policy and planning etc.
The participants suggested that effective lobbying and advocacy for this demand requires that we engage at various levels. One very important level at which we must engage is with present female MLAs who can be sensitized and motivated to lobby inside the assembly as well as at higher policy levels. They can be quite strong advocates for this campaigns.
We should also engage with women academicains, researchers, social activists, and politically active women who can contribute in this campaign to make it a collective and powerful voice.