The flawed argument in favour of reserved seats for women

Published: December 20, 2012

Before weighing the plausibility of the argument, many were quick to jump the bandwagon of unqualified criticism simply because it was Khan who said so. PHOTO: AFP

Imran Khan recently kicked up yet another melee in Pakistan’s media when he declared that he would have women contest in elections rather than enter the National Assembly (NA) on reserved seats.

Before weighing the plausibility of the argument, many were quick to jump the bandwagon of unqualified criticism simply because it was Khan who said so.

For the uninformed, women in Pakistan’s National Assembly currently have 60 reserved seats.

How exactly are these seats filled in?

Well, since the seats are allocated to each political party based on their proportion in the legislature, the said political parties have the sole authority to figure out who will fill these seats.

The result is simply that the wives, daughters, sisters and relatives of the bigwigs of each political party smugly position themselves on these seats, clamouring out about women rights yet being utterly incompetent to launch the least effort to that end. Seats are allocated purely on political connections with nary a thought spared to any merit or qualification.

There are plenty who dished out criticism to Khan’s proposition by stating that letting women contest elections is nearly impossible in a conservative country like Pakistan. The argument is quite valid and yet it is utterly inadequate to reach the conclusion that the reserved seats shouldn’t be tampered with.

In my view, yes women contesting elections still seems a remote possibility. However, things are on their way to change with the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) pushing for a greater number of party tickets given to woman candidates. Meanwhile, what we can do is to ensure that at least the women who find their way to the National Assembly on reserved seats merit some minimum qualification.

Just like I would never vote for Hamza Shahbaz being Shahbaz Sharif‘s son, I wouldn’t want a woman to represent Pakistani women simply because she is the wife of an eminent politician.

Is that principally wrong?


Is that too much to ask or somehow impossible?

Absolutely not.

So why the mindless ruckus then?

Rather than expending their energies in rabidly attempting to defend the reserved seats, I would suggest that the women rights activists can do a far better job if they tried to coordinate with the authorities and somehow devise some kind of minimum qualifications for the women who get to be appointed on the reserved seats.

A proven record of working for women, some political insight into policy-making for the said gender – anything tangible that may make sense for a person who gets to be on one of those reserved seats.

And I really don’t think that is too much to ask for.

This post originally appeared here.

Read more by Salman here or follow him on Twitter @SalmanLateef


Salman Latif

A blogger who blogs at and tweets @salmanlateef

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Aasim Mukhtar

    Well written.. One important thing that the those bashing Khan’s comments are missing is the fact that these reserved seats for women were introduced in the Era of Musharaf.. How can they even support it when they don’t even consider his era as democratic. Its so hypocritical of them to pick and choose things out of that era and keep what benefits them. The 2nd argument is that in ours conservative society it is difficult for a women to contest elections, even this argument does not hold true considering the fact that Benazir Bhutto was elected twice as PM of the country (let alone for MNA) that too in the era of 90s which had far greater shades of conservatism because of a recent Zia regime.Recommend

  • Parvez

    In a perfect political environment what you say makes sense. Alas this is far from a perfect environment and I.K. should have understood that this was a ‘red herring’ of a question and he should have had the good sense to have tactfully avoided it. Any sensible person realises that more women in the assemblies is a good thing. How this happens is a matter of debate and discussion not something to ‘blow a fuse’ on.
    The issue today is corruption and disgustingly bad governance, everything else is a result of these two, getting side tracked from this is what he should avoid. Recommend

  • Danish Qazi

    What has been referred to in the article is the flaw in the system and not the fact that there are reserved seats for women. In the kind of society we live in, if there are no reserved seats for women, hardly any women would be seen in the National Assembly. The kind of society IK is dreaming of is yet to go through a lot of transformation before there is no inequality based on gender. Not only the women but the regular seats in the National Assembly are taken by the political elite of the country and unfortunately many of such elitists (who have their roots in status quo) are very much part of IK’s team. Therefore, I would rather prefer women having any kind of representation than not having it at all. Recommend

  • Sinclair

    WOW! I thought the reserved seats for women meant that only women could contest from that seat. This is so insulting to women, that they are granted the seats based on proportion of seats held by the political party.Recommend

  • rehan siddiqui

    I fully agree with Khan. While women are clamouring for equality then why not contest on general seats instead of getting into parliament through their rich and powerful parents. mothers.All those women currentlh in assemblies are rich and easily afford the expenses instead of getting into assemblies from backdoor. It is all rubbish that women not getting their rights. Benazir became prime minister twice, hina khar is currently holding the prestigious post of foreign minister and there are many women serving as ambassadors and key positions in the country. So instead of crying foul and blaming Khan who hit the nail that’s why these women folks are crying foul. Recommend

  • Pessimist

    Once again, the problem with Imran Khan is that whatever he says is correct and will make sense, but he needs to understand the situation & reality in Pakistan. This point was also mentioned by Parvez. I understand that IK is not popular, but people need to understand what he says, rather than blindly criticising him.

    Coming to the point, if we were to abolish the reserve quota for women, I don’t think we’d see any women in the Assemblies at all. Their male opponents will simply resort to the ‘aurat aur khaandaan’ rhetoric.

    Maybe in 10 to 15 years, if we get our heads out of the sand and develop our country, perhaps we can abolish this quota. Alas, I can only hope… Recommend

  • doom

    You seem to be insinuating that there should be additional requirements for women in reserved seats. This is of course ridiculous. ALL parliamentarians should be qualified people regardless of gender, and reserved seat or no reserved seat.

    Secondly, this suggestion is something you came up with and has nothing to do with Imran Khan. The criticism that he has received is about what he said in particular and you acknowledged that the criticism is valid. But then you insist on coming to his defence anyway with a suggestion that has nothing to do with what he said, or what he plans. It makes no sense.

    IK said I’m going to do X and you say he is right because we should be doing Y?? Recommend

  • Salman Latif

    This article is not an apology on behalf of Imran Khan. I am not a PTI jayala. That said, I didn’t defend Khan in the said article, if only you could read closely enough. I simply said that Recommend

  • Analyzer

    @Sinclair: I’m in your club too, and am surprised that women of policital families just get the seats gifted to them, rendering these seats useless for anything other than taking up space in the assemblies. What IK said makes perfect sense then, that a number of seats should be reserved for women, but female candidates should be elected rather than selected for them. Recommend

  • Salman Latif

    This article is not an apology on behalf of Imran Khan. I am not a PTI jayala. That said, I didn’t defend Khan in the said article, if only you could read closely enough. I explicitly stated that whereas what Khan proposed was fairly impractical, some way could be devised to at least start the process to that end – which is, truly empowering women. Don’t care what Khan meant and whether or not he meant that. What that article contains is what I think and mean.

    Also, yes, qualifications for the legislators, at large, need to be bumped up so that we don’t get to see the same old, corrupt fellas year after year. Yet, its the reserved seats that are being discussed right now. Just like saying ‘first work on women rights at large’ when someone tries to champion Malala’s case is stupid, so is the case with the argument you present.Recommend

  • huma ijaz

    Women should have reserved seats and the quota should increase. There is also no doubt that qualification/ criteria to be nominated on the reserved seats hsould be set by election commision for the political parties. The argument that Benzir could do it so why not the rest well Benazir had a whole political destiny which even few men in the world have let alone women. It is a reality of our society that women are only given their rights or more if the men in their families choose to let them have their rights. Reserved seats have infact forced political parties to involve women otherwise it is a fact that this representation would not be there in the assemblies and now process for nomination can be made more merit based by election commission. I do agree while choosing to comment upon reserved seats IK should have spoken with clarity of thought rather than explaining later on qualification/selection criteria. It was truly damaging since 50% of his vote bank is women and his speech was very disappointing for women rights.Recommend

  • Sibtain S M

    “women contesting elections still seems a remote possibility”, The view expressed by Mr. Latif is factually incorrect. There are already a few directly female MNAs in the National Assembly like Khushbakht Shuja’at. There are many more electable female politicians on general seats against their male opponents.

    However, I entirely agree with him that Imran Khan’s is quite valid; there is no justification of bringing women into our legislatures in such flawed manner. True, it is desirable to ensure a degree of female representation in our assemblies, but it should not be on whims.

    Even if the present basis of allocation of seats to political parties is to be maintained the criteria of nomination must be well defined merit.Recommend

  • ahmed ali

    I have to admit that there are very few occasions when i can agree with Imran Khan but this certainly is one.

    There is no doubt that these reserved seats are there to accomodate the wives, sisters and daughters and might i add the not so secret mistresses of our leaders. Even the jamaat Chief could not find one female in his Party who could be given the reseerved seat, whihc was then given to his daughter.
    While the country’s current political conditions do necessitate reserved seats for women, why cant there be reserved seats from where only women can contest, but the ideea of the Party leader having the right to gift or sell Parliamant seats to women of his choice is not only rdiculous but totally against all norms of fairness and justice. Recommend

  • SoniaK

    spot on!

    To achieve a positive environment for elections for women some basic requirements other than the general requirement of being educated should be put in place. But if you just don’t vote for a woman coz she is the daughter, wife or sister of some big wig- it is being a bit far-fetched coz maybe they DO represent their constituency. If they do come through fair elections- then why not allow them the privilege!??!!!!Recommend

  • PakiKaka

    As far as reserved seats are concerned, it’s quite funny that women who harp upon the theme of equality don’t want to give an equal opportunity to others (men or women) to contest them for the seat they occupy. Double standards. I totally agree with Imran Khan, though i’m not a supporter, that quota system should be abolished. As someone pointed out there are plenty of women in NA who contest on general seats, win and enter NA. 30% seats for women also means that there is a bar on men and no more than 70% will enter NA. Let’s ask for a minimum quota for men as well then. This equality thing is wholly abused by all those who are clamouring at Khan’s very logical take on the issue. I don’t care if all the members of the NA are women, that’s perfectly fine. They should just come through the system prescribed for one and all. Isn’t that equality?Recommend

  • doom

    @Salman Latif:
    In this particular case, it doesn’t matter that we are talking about reserved seats. Practically, there can’t be two sets of requirements in the rules for MNA eligibility (or at least it would be horribly un-egalitarian to have two different standards; if this is even possible constitutionally).

    And if you could enforce minimum requirements for women seats that means you could enforce minimum requirements for all seats. It would be counter-logical to enforce the rules or add additional rules on the women first or women only. That would be the exact opposite of what we want to do – help and encourage women and make it “normal” for there to be lots of women in politics.Recommend

  • Something Clever

    It’s about gender balance. Not so much direct representation. Using a more extreme example of where balance is necessary is when deciding on decisions such as abortion. Without a shred of a doubt, a room containing only men would reach different conclusions than a group of women. Equal or not, it’s well established that women simply think differently than men and they experience different issues that men can’t relate to which can cause flawed perspective which creates flawed solutions. Unless they’re reserved in a society like Pakistan, they simply wouldn’t end up in a position where that contribution can be made. With the reasoning behind women there to contribute their perspective, it requires that they are there and Imran Khan’s predictably simple and moronic words call for a situation that makes it possible that zero women will be there for an extended period of time and that’s not acceptable given the purpose of their presence.
    Again, Imran Khan’s says something dumb and then his own supporters just make him look worse. You guys would be better just keeping quiet if you want him to gain support. You make people not want to be associated with you when you’re constantly embarrassing yourselves. Though it is entertaining to see people being so unintelligent with such confidence believing the contrary.Recommend

  • Dr Imran Ahmed

    I agree with what most people are saying.
    Let 60 seats be reserved for women only candidates to contest in first past the post contests. In the dim distant future when there is no discrimination against women or minorities we can do away with reserved quotas but at this time this would be a retrograde step.Recommend

  • Salman Latif

    I fervently agree that all legislators must undergo the same kind of scrutiny. And thus, whereas most of them are ‘elected’ individuals, some are not. Khan suggests that this difference must be mitigated by asking women to contest elections and through that, be a part of the legislatures. Given that this seems rather impossible or impractical, if you may, I simply proposed that we can do a bit more to ensure the moral grounds for the appointees of women’s reserved seats by adding certain pre-requisites.
    Do note, though, that if I were to strictly adhere to the yardstick you are defining, women parliamentarians must contest elections – since, as you say, there must be no double standards.Recommend

  • patriot

    Imran khan talks sense! rest talk rubbish!Recommend

  • Dr Imran Ahmed

    @Something Clever:
    You are clever and possibly right but direct elections have their charm. Proportional representation is even more democratic, but I digress.
    Why not combine reserved seats with direct election to them by female only candidates?Recommend

  • Umer Rasheed

    Bravo. A much needed reply. Well doneRecommend

  • The Only Normal Person Here.

    May god save you from PTI troll.Recommend

  • Dr Imran Ahmed

    Reserved seats can be a device to make representation more fair. Typically, these seats are allocated to minorities. In unified India the Muslim League realized that with a 25% Muslim population and first past the post electoral system very few, if any, Muslims would get elected in a preponderantly Hindu electorate. The League therefore wanted either reserved seats for Minorities or a proportional representation electoral system – this latter could have been a very reasonable solution.
    Women should be represented in Parliament – a large majority amongst us including IK would agree with this proposition. I feel that it is too early to do away with women’s reserved seats. Most negative comments against the women we have in Parliament are not based on objective evidence, they are doing a much better job than the men both quantitatively and qualitatively. Recommend

  • Fiza

    Before we all decide if this makes any sense just consider the fact that elections are never fair in this country; mostly, they are rigged. At this stage Pakistan needs womens representation in the national assembly. IK’s argument is completely flawed as always…forcing women out of the politics on incompetency grounds, think again… As if their male counterparts are very competent???

    IK always spouts venom against women… his actions speaks louder than his words…even in malala’s case he failed to condemn the Talibans. Of course, lets not forget that he is the Taliban Khan. God knows what he will do when he come int power.

    I do not agree with the notion that he is the knight in shinning armor who is always right. Whatever he said in the past, so far he has always backtracked on his words.

    We cannot do away with the reversed seats at this point, but i agree that we should have some criteria for selection, but that wont help either…if you know what i mean. Eventually, things will improve and women will evolve to take up more challenging roles. But for now, lets keep them in the game! Recommend

  • Loneliberal PK

    Imran Khan has recognized that his best bet to win the election is to focus on the largest voters bloc in the country: the jingoistic, Muslim male.

    I doubt if the author acknowledges the importance of, or even understands the meaning of, ‘affirmative action‘. He thinks that just because there are reserved seats for women, ANY unqualified woman can get in the NA or any other body. The women still have to compete against one another to ensure that the most qualified of them get in.

    If there’s corruption or nepotism involved, then it’s the same as that among men..

    We need reserved seats for women are imperative for women’s empowerment. To ensure that there is at least partly adequate representation of women in the high government decisions. That the government does not become completely male-dominated and, deliberately or by insufficient concern, ends up catering primarily for the Pakistani males (as it usually has in the past). Recommend

  • aaaaa

    This article has a very simple two word rebuttal: affirmative action.Recommend

  • Faraz Talat

    Would someone please explain the concept of affirmative action to St.Khan and his supporters, while I go choke on an entire container of aspirin?Recommend

  • Shakeel N

    Imran Khan is right. Women should be elected through proper election process. I bet this would be changed, sooner or later.Recommend

  • Lol’d


    Lets assume for a minute that Imran’s premise holds and the reserve seats are to be filled by an election between women, it leaves several questions unanswered. Firstly, which areas would be included in such an election? Would you include the whole province, certain regions (if yes than select them through what criteria?). Lets assume that the whole province is to be included that will need the delimit the regions so that the seats can be divided among them. That would provide another administrative challenge as well as a political one as we have seen MQM’s response to the delimitation proposal in Karachi.

    Or would these elections be like senate elections where the assemblies vote for the candidates? and we all know our horse trading that goes on during the senate elections and if that happens its almost the same as the reserved seat structure based on party representation.

    Thirdly, while these elections between women seems like a great idea to the urban educated class, how would you find women candidates in rural areas, tribal regions etc where women are still victims of a patriarchal system and have no say in matters. In Khan’s own town Mianwali, women were not allowed to vote through a Jirga decision until earlier this year when Ayla Malik of PTI helped convince the regional leaders otherwise. or does Khan propose that we leave these regions out of such elections which would then raise question of equal representation from regions.

    Someone else here mentioned the example of BB and Hina Khar as a proof that women are getting their rights. In case he did not notice that both women came from highly influential political families. They have been brilliant in what they achieved and after their term in the NA or as PM would have definitely been able to win the seats on their own accord but would they have been elected initially from the conservative societies in interior Sindh or south Punjab, is something that is doubtful had they not belonged to the Bhutto or the Khar family.

    The fact of the matter is that Khan’s proposal might look good in theory but they are an ideal world solution. Sadly we do not live in that world. A systematic reform is needed in the society before his proposals can be implemented. Till then the current system of getting candidates for the reserved seats is the only option I have. And reserve seats is the right for women given the patriarchal nature of our society. Recommend

  • Dr Imran Ahmed

    Good valid points, the present system has delivered reasonable female parliamentarians, leave it alone. Let Pakistanis get used to female politicians representing their interests. Do not fix something which is not bust even though there may be lots of alternatives to the same end.Recommend