The process political parties adopt to select candidates for general elections, especially on general seats, can be explained as primarily assessing and executing priorities. Barring certain exceptions, women, especially those from minority communities, find themselves near the bottom of the priority lists for candidates.
Political parties have their own ideas, fears and reservations, which prevent them from handing party tickets to minority candidates, irrespective of whether they are men or women. The women decidedly find themselves lower in the pecking order than men.
The few women who have managed to climb that priority list have done so after years of struggle at the bottom-most rung of the political ladder.
Mangla Sharma: Treading the unknown
Mangala Sharma served in the provincial assembly of Sindh from 2018 to 2023 after being nominated for a reserved seat for women by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P).
If women were recognised and given the same level of importance as men, many more women would contest the February 8 general elections
A member of the Hindu community, Sharma's political career started 18 years before she first walked into the provincial assembly as a member. She had successfully contested the local body elections in 2000 and won from a Union Council. In 2005, she served on the City Council. She returned to the city council in 2016.
I felt the pain and anguish of the common man, she said of her decision to enter politics, adding that the common folk struggle with their problems.
Having cut her teeth at the grassroots political level, she ensured she kept in touch with the common people, especially her community, by establishing the Pak Hindu Welfare Association -- which works for the labour and social rights of minorities. She is also a member of the Provincial Commission on the Status of Women. She works closely with Inclusion Security, an American non-profit founded by Ambassador Sweeney Hunt.
Sharma was awarded the "Fatima Jinnah Award" by the Ministry of Women's Development for her efforts.
Mangala Sharma says that the fundamental problems faced by members of minority communities are not being resolved. One major reason for it is that minorities are not duly represented in parliament. She faulted the reserved seat system for this misrepresentation, even though her political career has benefitted from the system.
Politicians from minority communities attain these seats on tickets of political parties, she explained. What was created as a system to ensure the representation of minority communities to redress their issues has been warped into another tool of elite capture in Pakistani politics.
Sharma said that the candidates chosen by political parties to represent the minorities on these seats belong to the elite cadres of society, cycling between property tycoons, business magnates or those who are economically quite stable and politically connected.
The representatives of minority communities who walk into parliament on reserved seats are not accountable to the people at the grassroots level because they have not been elected by those they claim to represent.
I say we still need to devise a good strategy in this regard, she said.
Despite her misgivings about the lack of accountability, Sharma advocated the need to retain the reserved seats for women and minorities at the local government level so that they can gain an understanding of grassroots politics.
"My suggestion is that if a political party nominates a man or a woman candidate to a reserved seat once, then that is fine. But in the next election, they should be fielded on a general seat so that they can learn constituency politics and work to hold their seats and solve the problems faced by their constituents," she said.
She further urged political parties to allocate reserved seats to young women and men.
Sharma urged more women to contest municipal elections to learn about the issues that the public faces daily and how these problems can be resolved. Thereafter, they can contest elections at the provincial level.
Politics of parties prisoner to perception
Different political parties have different ideologies. It is what makes them think and act so different. But the parties in Pakistan seem to have found commonality in failing to recognise the importance and existence of women beyond a few figureheads.
The only viable means to resolve the problems faced by minority communities in Pakistan is for political parties to hand tickets to grassroots representatives from minority communities engaged in social work
If women were recognised and given the same level of importance as men, many more women would contest the February 8 general elections from different constituencies on general seats. Sharma clarified that she was talking about greater electoral participation by women from religious minority communities.
She noted that under Election Act, parties are now required to ensure five percent of all tickets awarded go to women.
"It is also difficult for women from minority communities to contest elections [on general seat] because they are dependent on their families while their source of income is not something very special which would allow them to spend big in the elections," she said.
"We have a tradition where people spend on influential candidates to win and secure the benefits for them," Sharma said.
Contesting the claim of political parties that candidates from minority communities do not attract the same attention or respect as other candidates, Sharma pointed to the election of Mahesh Kumar Malani, who was elected to the National Assembly on a general ticket in 2018.
Belonging to an influential political family of Tharparkar, Malani started his political career in 1996-97. He quickly rose through the ranks to be appointed as the president of the PPP chapter in Tharparkar and the minority wing of PPP in Sindh. But in 2018, he contested and won a general seat in the national assembly.
Mangala Sharma said that the only viable means to resolve the problems faced by minority communities in Pakistan is for political parties to hand tickets to grassroots representatives from minority communities engaged in social work.
Malani's example encouraged the first woman candidate from a minority community, Dr Sveera Prakash, to submit nomination papers for a general seat, PK-25, in the Buner district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. She will be contesting elections on a Pakistan People's Party ticket.
Sharma said that the media can play a very important role in highlighting not only the issues of actual concern to constituents but also shining a light on candidates from minority communities who may not be well known outside of community ranks and even held accountable.
Thus, Sharma argued that women need to be praised; they need to be given confidence.
The PPP did not stop handing tickets for general seats to minority candidates with Dr Prakash. They have also issued a ticket to a young lawyer, Roma Mushtaq Mattu, belonging to the minority Christian community.
Mattu said that if parties see all human beings equally, regardless of their religion, colour or caste; it could help resolve problems in the region. If elected, Muttu hoped to pave the way for resolving his community's long-standing problems.
Sadia Javed, a Pakistan People's Party leader, says that contesting elections on the general seat is no easy task.
Our society still does not accept the status of women in this way, says Javed, adding that they engage in political slogans and say that women stand shoulder to shoulder-with men. But reality does not mirror this statement.
Javed explained that an election costs a candidate a minimum of Rs60 million to Rs70 million. Somehow, people are ready to spend such a large sum of money on male candidates to win, but this is never the case with female candidates.
Senior journalist and analyst Mazhar Abbas said that the main reason why women are not being elected in general seats from a metropolitan region such as Karachi was the lack of encouragement from political parties.
Political parties need to pay attention to this. It is also the fault of female candidates that they do not apply themselves for the general seat. Women themselves also want to come to certain seats.