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      /  Rights   /  From Symbolic Representatives to Critical Actors 

    From Symbolic Representatives to Critical Actors 

    Author: Mariyam Suleiman

    According to World Economic Forum, one of the biggest factors in the gender gap between men and women worldwide exists in the form political participation and representation in all levels. This makes it one of the most researched topics in gender studies and political science. But so far there is no single answer to why women are left behind in one of the most important social institutions. 

    It is, however, well established that no matter how large of a population women make, how developed or underdeveloped a state is, women do not make significant numbers as voters, candidates and members of political parties.To address this issue to some extent, there is a strong emphasis and legislation in most states today for affirmative action –a term used by political scientists to describe electoral quotas.

    This allows specific seats in all levels of government (except cabinet) to be allocated for women, to encourage them to participate in politics, making a favorable environment for them in otherwise overly male-dominant sector. This is especially useful in places like Baluchistan where women hardly run for elections and have minimum chances of getting elected. But there is a downside to it as well.

     The biggest criticism affirmative action gets is that the seats being bestowed to either family members of the male politicians or women with very minimum to no political experience. With mere symbolic representation, these women easily conform to the decisions of their male counterparts, and are often used to increase party allies in assemblies.

    As for Eastern Baluchistan (Pakistan), one important criteria for their selection is strong alignment with a political party or with state’s dominant political views and institutions. This makes their presence very superficial. Where women politicians are expected to advocate for women-friendly policies and interests and participate critically in other important legislation, here their presence and stance, however, in most cases, is hardly considered important in the assembly and for the people in general. 

    One important practice used around the world, to make women’s participation through quota system more effective and critical, is nomination of women active in local politics or with longstanding party membership. This makes it an organic rise from lower to the higher levels. But, in Baluchistan, it is very unusual to see women activists as well as members of political parties with political history, especially from the local levels making it to the assemblies. 

    As for the activists, they do not necessarily confederate with the contemporary state politics and views of state institutions. Although for the first time Baluchistan saw a number of women political activists rising from remote areas, roughly around the last two decades. But none seemed eager to participate in the state politics and government. And the latter [members of contemporary political parties] from local levels are hardly considered suitable candidates by the majority – men – in the parties, despite years of contribution and experiences. 

    As a result, women in the Baluchistan assembly in Pakistan every government are often new faces with little to no political experience. Their stance and grievances are therefore often not taken seriously within the assembly. As for the public, they are only symbolic figures without any powers. 

    If they belong to the ruling party, they may be given positions in ministers of women development and alike, but overall they do not have authority over decisions, influencing policy, joining a ministry or committee and leaving with their own will. And the most difficult for them is to obtain key leadership positions in the cabinet, since, there is no established law in most of the world’s states to make women’s presence mandatory in the cabinet.

    When women represent half of the population, and even if their role is symbolic in the assemblies, they by no mean have to be excluded in the policy making processes and positions. Women with political experience from political parties at local levels need to be given opportunities, and if that is not happening any soon, the current members of assembly at least for now need not be left out. 

    Even if they have little to offer as per political experience and stance, they still have perspectives different from majority men. Where class and affiliations may privilege them over other women, but in a conflicted region like Baluchistan with deeply-rooted patriarchy, it is not less challenging for women to participate in politics by any means. There is undeniably, a very long way to go, before women in Baluchistan move beyond symbolic representation, and towards getting an equal space as critical actors in society and government.