Pakistan’s Women Constitution-Makers

Apr 10, 2023 | PAK Constitution Blog

Maryam S. Khan | IDEAS Research Fellow

This is the first blog as part of the PAK Constitution Blog series launched on 10th April 2023, to mark 50 years of Pakistan’s Constitution. For questions, insights, and add-ons, please drop us an email at We would be delighted to hear from you and keep the conversation going.

On the 50th anniversary of Pakistan’s enduring Constitution of 1973, I shed light on and commemorate the many significant contributions of the 6 women constitution-makers in the National Assembly that made the Constitution.

      The Legal Framework Order of 1970 (LFO), introduced by the martial law regime of General Yahya Khan as a basis for conducting the first general election later the same year, provided for a total of 13 reserve seats for women. 7 of these were allocated to East Pakistan, 3 to Punjab, and one each to Sindh, NWFP and Balochistan.

      The 6 constitution-makers who entered the National Assembly through indirect elections to these reserve seats in 1972, after the dismemberment of Pakistan, were no ordinary women.[1] It does not come as a surprise that they have been squeezed to the margins of political memory, perhaps because they belong to a phase of history that has become trapped in narratives of conspiracy, but more likely because of their dependence on male compatriots to vote them into power. One or two of them are better known than others because of their political background, but even so with negligible appreciation of their roles as constitution-makers.

      As I embark on an inspiring journey to recreate their stories by piecing together existing anecdotal and biographical accounts, archival materials, and new oral histories, I begin with a very modest aim of presenting the remarkable contributions of these women to the Constitution by drawing on that most durable of historical sources: constitution-making debates. 

      The 6 women constitution-makers of the Constitution of 1973 included 4 members from the ruling majority of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP): Begum Nasim Jahan from Lahore, Nargis Naim Sindhu from Lyallpur, Begum Zahida Sultana from Rahimyar Khan, and Dr. Ashraf Abbasi from Larkana.

(L-R): Begum Nasim Jahan, Nargis Naim Sindhu, Begum Zahida Sultana and Dr. Ashraf Abbasi

      One member from the national opposition party, the National Awami Party (NAP) – Jennifer Jehanzeba Qazi Musa from Pishin – and one from the NWFP party in alliance with the center, Pakistan Muslim League-Qayyum (PML-Q) – Shireen Wahab from Peshawar.

(L-R): Jennifer Jehanzeba Qazi Musa, Shireen Wahab

      Begum Nasim Jahan[2] and Dr. Ashraf Abbasi[3] had the added distinction of sitting on the 25-member Constitution Committee set up to draft the new constitution. They were both PPP representatives but with very different worldviews. As the daughter of the veteran Muslim Leaguer Begum Jehanara Shahnawaz who was one of only two women in Pakistan’s first constituent assembly, Begum Nasim Jahan brought with her vast political experience and a well-founded ideological framework of a ‘socialist federation’ fortified by ‘proletarian’ and ‘Islamic internationalism’. Dr. Ashraf Abbasi, on the other hand, born in a village in Larkana and a qualified medical doctor from Dow Medical College in Karachi, found her way into politics on the persuasion of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto during the early 1960s and sat on a reserve seat for women in the West Pakistan assembly through the Ayub decade.[4]

Dr. Ashraf Abbasi with Z.A. Bhutto, courtesy Sikandar Ali Hullio

      Much less is known about the other two PPP representatives, Nargis Naim Sindhu and Zahida Sultana. To my sheer delight, I was recently able to establish contact with Nargis Naim’s close relatives.[5] Hailing from a family in Lyallpur (contemporary Faisalabad), Mrs. Sindhu joined the PPP after a chance attendance at a political rally held by the party during the election campaign of 1970. She was to become a close confidant of Bhutto and worked her way to an instrumental position in labor politics in the industrial hub of Lyallpur.[6] As for Begum Zahida Sultana, she was ostensibly from a political family from Rahimyar Khan, and held a Master of Economics with experience in research and journalism. Both Mrs. Sindhu and Begum Sultana come across as highly forthright and politically assertive.

Mrs. Nargis Naim Sindhu with Z.A Bhutto, courtesy Mrs. Nadia Naim

      Of the two non-PPP members, Jennifer Musa from the NAP was the Irish-born widow of Qazi Muhammad Musa – brother of the prominent Muslim Leaguer Qazi Muhammad Isa – and a founder member of the Balochistan chapter of the All Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA). To our detriment, she is conspicuous in the debates only by her silence. While Mrs. Musa’s name appears on the Constitution Committee, she was nominated at a very late stage to this position upon the voluntary resignation of Mir Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo, causing her to attach a technical note of dissent to the Draft Constitution on the ground that she had no occasion to participate in the proceedings of the Committee. Other than this, Mrs. Musa never spoke during the constitution-making process.

      Last but not least was Shirin Wahab of the PML-Q, who served as the first Secretary General of the Frontier Women’s Muslim League (FWML), an organization set up prior to partition by the Muslim League for political mobilization of women in NWFP. Shirin sahiba’s tilt towards Islamic modernism comes through consistently in the debates.

      With such a small representation, there was nothing like a women’s caucus in the Assembly. But evidently, this did not come in the way of a strong convergence on the demand for the ‘constitutional guarantee of representation’ for women in all constitutional bodies (to use Dr. Abbasi’s words) – including the National Assembly, the Senate, the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), and local government. The Draft Constitution’s proposal of 5 % reserve seats in the Assembly for women was challenged on the ground that this figure was too insignificant in view of the almost equal ratio of women in the population. Shirin sahiba stood out for her intrepid advocacy for ‘at least 30 %’ representation in the Assembly, and invoked Surah Nisa in support of her demand.

      At the same time, Begum Jahan pressed for ‘direct female suffrage’ to allow women on reserve seats to be directly and exclusively elected by women. This, she claimed, would eliminate the conflict and the duality that emerged from women members being beholden to the men who put them in power while representing women.[7] Begum Jahan pointed to the unanimous endorsement received for this proposal from various women’s organizations that engaged with the Constitution Committee through letters and telegrams.[8] Abdul Hafeez Pirzada, the PPP Law Minister, forcefully counter-argued that this would disadvantage women from rural constituencies, prompting Begum Jahan to withdraw her proposed amendment under protest.

      That aside, all women members fiercely guarded the 10 reserve seats that had been included in the Draft Constitution as the bare minimum for ensuring women’s representation in the National Assembly for the next 10 years. During a particularly heated exchange on this issue, Mrs. Sindhu severely admonished those arguing for the general seats to be reserved for men. Reminding the Assembly that a fatwa was the last refuge of the ulema whenever women’s rights were at stake, she stood up to the casual sexism of members like Muhammad Hanif Khan and Ghulam Ghaus Hazarvi.

      As for the women constitution-makers’ demand for representation in the Senate was universal and unequivocal, based on similar considerations of women being deliberately excluded from these constitutional bodies. Dr. Abbasi and Begum Sultana were the most vocal proponents of two reserve seats for women from each province in the Senate, while others expressed their hopes for at least one seat from each province. Begum Sultana’s reference to the ‘glaring omission’ in the Draft Constitution pertaining to women in the Senate was probably the most hard-hitting given her otherwise most eloquent defense of the PPP’s proposed structure of federalism and provincial autonomy. As for the CII, all were agreed that the ulema must bow to accepting at least one woman on the Council.

      The idea of local government (like the Senate) surfaced for the first time in the Constitution of 1973. This was a unique proposal from Begum Nasim Jahan. It was based on the necessity for a ‘grass-root democracy’ that would represent ‘all class interests’, including peasants, workers and women. Its author argued that it would displace the colonial-era bureaucracy, and would allow for the ‘socialization of power’ through ‘new institutions of mass organizations’ at the local level. These would act as ‘autonomous units of socio-economic and political power’ on the principle of ‘all power to the people’. This proposal was welcomed and accepted with only minor changes. The original clause on local government institutions in the Constitution of 1973 is as follows:

32. The State shall encourage local Government institutions

composed of elected representatives of the areas concerned and, in

such institutions, special representation will be given to

peasants, workers and women.

      Most of Begum Jahan’s other proposed amendments were derived from her ideological lens of a ‘socialist People’s Democracy’. These amendments included clauses for equal pay for equal work and the right to work,[9] another for the elimination of ‘bureaucratism, despotism, and ostentation’, and the substitution of ‘egalitarian society’ with ‘classless society’ in the Objectives Resolution. Begum Jahan also endorsed an amendment moved by Sheikh M. Rashid, the PPP Health Minister, for making ‘Islamic socialism’ the basis of Pakistan’s economy. However, none of these proposals made their way into the Constitution. Her heterodox idea of giving representation to functional and vocational groups like peasants, workers, students and women in parliament itself received zero support in the Assembly, quite apart from drawing the ire of Hafeez Pirzada. Begum Jahan retreated gracefully on the occasion, although she did not otherwise desist from holding PPP to its manifesto and remained an important internal critic of the party.   

      But while Begum Jahan’s was most certainly the dominant voice in the debates on behalf of women and the working classes, other women constitution-makers did not always see eye-to-eye with her. They differed considerably, for instance, on the method for operationalizing the proposed Directive Principle of Policy stipulating that ‘steps shall be taken to ensure full participation of women in all spheres of national life’. Begum Jahan had earlier put forward a suggestion in the Constitution Committee for the establishment of a commission on the status of women that had been dismissed on the pretext of lack of resources. During the debates, she changed her strategy, pushing instead for the insertion of a clause for ‘the creation of special women’s voluntary organizations with a view to raising the status of women’. This, she professed, was in line with other socialist states. Dr. Abbasi was quick to oppose this on the ground that it would restrict the scope of the original Principle and would provide an opening to the government to cabin women’s participation to such organizations. Mrs. Sindhu was unpersuaded by Begum Jahan’s reliance on ‘communist’ states like USSR and China in making this proposal, and argued for foregrounding Pakistan’s local context in thinking about modes of women’s participation. Shirin sahiba added her voice to this from an Islamic modernist perspective, asserting that Islam granted a much broader set of rights to women than any other framework.

      However, cases of such disagreement during the debates were rare, and examples of common cause abundant. Worth highlighting is the joint effort of Dr. Abbasi and Begum Jahan to thwart a proposed amendment by Ghulam Ghaus Hazarvi and Mufti Mehmood – both ulema belonging to the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI), the party heading the coalition government in NWFP – to ‘debar’ women from becoming the Head of State. Also crucial was the collective pushback against the ulema’s persistent attempts to repeal the Muslim Family Laws Ordinance of 1961 (MFLO), an important piece of legislation introduced by the Ayub regime to safeguard Muslim women’s rights in personal and family matters.

       Ultimately, the original Constitution of 1973 allocated 10 reserve seats to women in the National Assembly through indirect election for a period of 10 years or the holding of the second general election to the Assembly, whichever occurred later.[10] For the CII, it mandated that at least one member would be a woman, to be appointed by the President.[11] There was no reservation for women’s representation in the Senate. But there were several other ‘firsts’ in relation to women. In the provision on Fundamental Rights relating to equality before law and equal protection of law, two new clauses were added: the first prohibiting discrimination ‘on the basis of sex alone’, and the other reserving to the state the power to make ‘any special provision for the protection of women and children’. [12] In the Directive Principles of Policy was included the new provision directing the state to take steps ‘to ensure full participation of women in all spheres of national life’.[13] Also inserted into the Principles relating to promotion of social and economic well-being was the prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sex.[14] Similarly, the new local government provision emphasized ‘special representation’ for women along with peasants and workers.[15] Together, these provisions became the bedrock of women’s rights in the Constitution.             

The author acknowledges the able assistance of her Research Assistant Mahnaz Shujrah in the writing of this blog.

[1] No woman was elected to the National Assembly on a general seat, even though 9 women contested elections on general seats for the first time as independents. 

[2] Begum Jahan was the only woman member of PPP’s Central Committee.

[3] Dr. Abbasi became the Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly in 1973, after the passage of the Constitution.

[4] I am greatly indebted to Aslam Khwaja for sharing a biographical profile of Dr. Ashraf Abbasi authored by him.

[5] My gratitude to Homaira Latif for facilitating this contact.

[6] Mrs. Sindhu became Parliamentary Secretary for Health, Social Welfare and Population Planning in the first PPP government.

[7] The earlier Constitution of 1956 provided for direct female suffrage in electing women representatives to reserve seats in the assembly. Paradoxically, the provision was introduced by the only constituent assembly in Pakistan’s history that had zero representation of women.  

[8] Begum Jahan made reference to 22 women’s organizations, including APWA, Pakistan Ladies Federation, Women’s Medical Association, Women Teachers Association, Ladies Purdah Club, University Women Association, etc.

[9] Begum Jahan referenced the recently made Bangladesh constitution that provided the ‘right to guaranteed employment’.

[10] Article 51(4). This was 5 % of the total membership of the National Assembly (200).

[11] Article 228(3)(d). The CII was to be an 8 to 15-member body.

[12] Articles 25(2) and 25(3).

[13] Article 33.

[14] Article 38(a), pertaining to securing the well-being of the people by raising their standard of living and preventing concentration of wealth; and Article 38(d), regarding the provision of basic necessities of life, such as food, clothing, housing, education and medical relief.

[15] Article 32 referenced above.