female cabinet members

In the current season of famous American web television series “House of Cards”, President Claire Underwood, sitting pretty in the Oval Office, is cleaning house. Claire recruits an all female cabinet, which sends a clear message that things are going to be different under her leadership as the first female president of United States of America.

But then this is fiction. In real life, we are yet to see a government not only headed but also run by an all female cabinet, whereas the opposite – a male leader with an all male cabinet, may still be common.

Real life drama: Female cabinet position holders around the world

The closest to the US drama we have got so far is in Spain, where the new prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, recently became the first world leader to appoint women to almost two-thirds of cabinet positions. No country in the world has a higher proportion of female-led ministries. Thirty years ago, Spain had no female cabinet members.

In the election campaign in 2016, now President Emmanuel Macron in France had promised to have equal representation. Today, his cabinet contains 11 women and 11 men.

According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union and UN Women in a handful of countries, mostly European, women make up 50 percent or more of ministerial positions, although the precedence was made in South America’s Chile, whose first female president, Michelle Bachelet, had a gender-equal government in 2006.

Just a few years ago Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was celebrated around the world for assembling a gender-equal cabinet. His reasoning? “Because it’s 2015,” he had told reporters.

Now in 2018, in Africa’s second most populous country Ethiopia, the prime minister Abiy Ahmed’s appointment of women to half the posts in the cabinet amid a string of political reforms, has earned Ahmed comparisons to Nelson Mandela, Justin Trudeau, Barack Obama and Mikhail Gorbachev within just over 6 months of him taking oath. Recently, he appointed the former construction minister, Aisha Mohammed, as defence minister – the first woman to hold that position in Ethiopia.

However, contrary to the 100 percent female cabinet in the American TV series, women hold just 20 per cent of cabinet positions in the United States and 28 percent in the United Kingdom, the world’s leaders in politics and championing of human rights.

In her 11 years in Downing Street, Britain’s first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher had promoted just one woman to her cabinet. “You have to promote on merit,” Thatcher had said in an interview in 1993, after she was challenged on the lack of women in her cabinet.

Almost three decades later, Britain’s second female prime minister, Theresa May is similarly facing questions over her commitment to promoting women in her government. After her latest reshuffle, there are just 9 women in May’s 29-strong cabinet. Critics say prime minister must do more to promote diversity in her top team.

women representaion in parliament

What about Naya Pakistan?

And here in Naya Pakistan, among the 16 ministers and 5 advisors in the cabinet, 3 are women, with two already having served different governments on other posts.
The 2018 General Elections in Pakistan were quite significant as far as women’s political participation and representation is concerned. Section 9 of the Elections Act 2017 mandated Elections Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to nullify election results if women’s turnout was lower than 10 percent or if there were reports about forced disenfranchisement of women.

Dir making history

As a result, in a village in Punjab’s Khushab city, women came out to vote for the first time since independence. In Upper Dir, a conservative tribal district bordering with Afghanistan, a cultural taboo was broken and women, deprived of casting their vote since 1970s, set a precedent by choosing to vote this year.
In Thar district, where transportation system is minimal, infra-structure is undeveloped and weather conditions severe, women turnout was more than 70 percent – among the highest in the entire country.

Also, it had been made mandatory in the new election law that political parties must allocate at least five per cent tickets to women on directly elected or general seats . This was in addition to the seats reserved for women in the legislatures.
As many as 171 women candidates were in the run against 272 general seats of the National Assembly across the country – the highest number of women candidates in Pakistan’s electoral history.

Among these, 105 women were awarded party tickets while another 66 contested as independent candidates. However, media reports claimed that mainstream political parties accommodated most women candidates in constituencies where they were weak. The outcome of the elections validated this point, as only 8 women could make it to the National Assembly through the direct elections.

Throwback in time.

Historically in the country, with the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah encouraging women to participate in all walks of life, women’s groups and feminist organisations by prominent leaders like Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah started to form that worked to eliminate socio-economic injustices against women in the country.
During the elections of 1965, it seemed that Fatima Jinnah was set to become the first female president of a Muslim country. However, she suffered a setback and instead, General Ayub Khan assumed power.

Then it was during the regime of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto during the 70s that 10 percent of the seats in the National Assembly and 5 percent in the provincial assemblies were reserved for women.
In 1981, General Zia-ul-Haq nominated the Majlis-e-Shoora (Federal Advisory Council) and inducted 20 women as members, however Majlis-e-Shoora had no power over the executive branch. In 1985, the National Assembly elected through non-party elections doubled women’s reserved quota, 20 percent.

However, Zia-ul-Haq initiated a process of Islamization by introducing discriminatory legislation against women such as the set of Hudood Ordinances and the Qanun-e-Shahadat Order (Law of Evidence Order).
Then in 1988, Benazir Bhutto became the first female Prime Minister of Pakistan, and the first woman elected to head a Muslim country. During her election campaigns, she had voiced concerns over social issues of women, health and discrimination against women. But in her first term as prime minister, she had 5 female ministers in a 27 strong cabinet, while in her second cabinet, among 26 ministers and 13 ministers of state, not a single woman was appointed.

On the contrary, when her husband, Asif Ali Zardari became the President of Pakistan in 2008, a female member of parliament Dr. Fehmida Mirza was appointed as the first female speaker in South Asia. During the tenure, Pakistan also saw its first female foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, first secretary of defence, Nargis Sethi,deputy speaker of a province Shehla Raza and numerous female ministers, ambassadors, secretaries including Farahnaz Ispahani, Media Advisor to former President of Pakistan and , Sherry Rehman, former ambassador of Pakistan to US, with Fauzia Wahab, Firdous Ashiq Awan, Farzana Raja, Shazia Marri, Sharmila Faruqi holding prestigious positions within the administration.

While female representation in Pakistan retains a mixed status, with some sectors showing an increase in their participation and others under represented, this remains a fact that the awareness of need for more women to join power seats is increasing.
Given an opportunity, they surely do not flinch from taking it, but soon there may come a point, that they may not wait for a chance to be given – they would step forward and rightfully claim what is theirs.

Unless female participation is increased in the top echelons of our country, women affairs will continue to suffer from disregard and issues pertaining to them in the back bench. Women can bring a change not only in the society; they can, if given a chance, contribute to better policy making and improvement in the status of other women. Together, they can make the world a better place.

The article is contributed by Shabana Mahfooz; A Broadcast Journalist and freelance writer. She writes on issues related to women, religion, society and current affairs.

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