The “face” of any minority group is perhaps not shown more powerfully than through political activity. The political leadership of women representing minorities is, therefore, not only a fascinating academic topic but an embodiment of a real double-edged challenge. Pakistani-American women represent racial, religious, and gender specifics, which may define their standing in American society and politics. There is nothing novel about the idea of cultural barriers to women’s advancement, and there is nothing novel about the use of women solely as a political instrument for gathering more votes. On the other hand, the growing popularity of women’s inclusion in political parties, the increased number of role models, and the recognition of an opportunity among both women and minorities in a changing climate give hope.
To address how Pakistani women are and can further be incorporated in American political parties and national legislatures and how the political and institutional environment facilitates their inclusion, we should first look at the general framework of equality in political participation and beyond the narrow view of women’s ability to engage within the political system.
Barriers to Women’s Political Leadership
As a result of Donald Trump’s presidency, US Muslim women recognized the urgency of participating in the political process at every level, from voting, supporting candidates, getting involved in political advocacy and activism, and running for elected office themselves. The same twist occurred within the Pakistani-American community, which, initially, may not have been politically inclined. However, despite the US deemed openness, being a defining characteristic of the nation, these aspirations entail a multitude of obstacles.
There are a wide variety of reasons why elected office might be more elusive for women than for men, either due to their political socialization into lower levels of nascent political ambition or due to the informal campaign and election barriers to officeholding. One of the biggest obstacles is a trap of superficial efforts to increase the number of women involved in politics. Examples mentioned by the UNDP and National Democratic Institute include: “women’s wings without statutory authority or sway, the selection of so-called female placeholders on candidate lists, the marginalization of female officials once they are elected, placing women in unelectable districts as candidates, or removing women from viable positions on candidate lists at the last minute.”
The same might apply to the case of marginalized groups. Elite theory suggests that party leaders might promote and field minority candidates and women just to attract voters. At the same time, as political parties play a substantial role in women’s political representation, it is practically their yes or no to women’s involvement that decides further involvement. “Political parties are an important entry point for candidates to access the political landscape in the United States and party leaders continue to serve as gatekeepers”, explains Dr. Ameena Zia, Professor of Political Economy and Social Impact Consultant on UN Global Goals. “Political parties, like other organizational structures, pursue strategic and operational objectives to maximize election support and their success rates depend entirely on the ability to adapt to the environment and guide candidate endorsements”.
In a four-state survey, the majority of locally elected women expressed “that party leaders had discouraged potential women candidates from running for office because of their gender.”
These barriers sketch why fewer women hold state legislative office, particularly in states where parties play a stronger role in candidate selection. In conclusion, where female party members fail to coalesce around a joint reform agenda and women’s groups lack a strong base in civil society, it becomes much harder to pressure party leaders. Political structures, creating a large gap in women’s actual and true representation; and media coverage, going against a woman’s identity as a politician to prevent the votes, may severely restrict women’s substantive involvement.
Political Party Support for Pakistani-American Women
Parties and other political institutions may also react to new challenges in a bottom-up process, with support responding to changes in electoral competitiveness, which leads to higher women’s participation. Considering the political change and adaptation, the “Elite Model”, as mentioned previously, would view parties as actors altering their environment in a top-down process. The “Societal Change Model”, on the other hand, shows how in a more permeable party structure, women and women’s groups pressure the party from below to promote women candidates for office.
Although Pakistani-American women might face some of the mentioned barriers, according to research, Democratic and Republican minority nominees do not receive less support than their white counterparts. In the women’s context, white women currently receive more party support from Democrats than Democratic men. Republican women candidates struggle because they are perceived as less conservative than Republican men, which can be problematic in Republican primaries. However, it shows that party elites can provide further support to candidates from underrepresented groups in the general election to widen their appeal to voters. Greater party competition also increases the access points for female candidacies.
Internal political party measures to help not just Pakistani-American women on their political journey but other women can generally include women participation quotas, assuring women are placed in winnable positions on a party list, with sanctions for non-compliance. Next stands the cultivation of strategic alliances with men within parties, supporting cross-party networks of women and women’s parliamentary caucuses, or promoting gender-sensitive reforms to political institutions. The establishment of fundraising networks for political campaigns would be very beneficial, specifically for minority political candidates and women, stating a lack of funding as one of the main barriers in their campaigns. The key to opening up the party structure to minority groups will depend on the elite’s behavior, political environment, and grassroots mobilization.
Community Support for Pakistani-American Women
Regarding support from the community, Pakistani-American women may receive support from both the US Pakistani community and communities of similar cultural roots, religions, and values. Being geographically dispersed, the formation of influential voting blocs has not generally been possible for the Pakistani community, making it difficult to impact politics in this particular way. Building upon conflicting examples, support from the wider Muslim community and Muslim political leadership is also not something the candidates can completely count on. However, statistics show that through political involvement Muslims (and Pakistanis) have been able to negotiate their opinions within American politics with more extensive transnational views. Pakistani-American involvement within the American political system helped them negotiate their position within the racial and social hierarchies in the US. “They have been able to adapt and create their own understanding of cultural citizenship, as well as strengthen their community organization to collectively act for change in both Pakistan and the US,” examines Dr. Ameena Zia.
Aspirations for political participation are challenged by a multitude of obstacles, differing or culminating based on gender, race, and minority status. As women, more than men, are reliant on party support for their election to office, political parties have a crucial role in bringing women forward to political leadership and electoral offices. However, we should keep in mind the kind of inclusion for women we aim for. Is it the inclusion of women on the condition that they will behave like men, or we wish to embrace women’s qualities in political leadership? Do we want to include women just to lead by numbers, or we genuinely want to give women a chance to gain power in the top echelons of the party and the national legislature? Finally, women of all personality types express less interest in running for office than their male counterparts. They prefer to engage more in small-scale, less formal, and caring forms of activity over the politicized, hierarchical organizations. Pushing them into these positions without understanding the differences therefore may not count as an accomplishment. Political parties provide a gender equality framework, but to achieve the answer to each question, their strategies need to combine reforms to political institutions with targeted support to women party activists inside and outside party structures, women candidates, and elected officials.
This article is part of a research study of UN Experiential Fellowship, a project of Blue Ridge Impact Consulting, examining representation in the American political landscape. Authored by Bohumila Klajblova, UN Experiential Fellow, UNMGCY member and young professional in international development and Doha Maaty, a UN Experiential Fellow and student of Global Health and Justice and Peace Studies at Georgetown University
This article first appeared in Daily Times. Click here to go to the original.