Pakistani women starting a new chapter with elections

By Kelsey L. Campbell

Foreign Policy Magazine

On Saturday, Pakistanis will go to the polls to determine their new provincial and national assemblies.

The completion of the Pakistan People’s Party’s term in March was hailed as a major achievement in democracy-the first time a democratically-elected administration served a full term in the country’s 65-year history.

To further the strides toward a more peaceful and inclusive society, it is vital that the future government is elected by and inclusive of all segments of Pakistan’s population.

Like many countries of the region, women remain as the largest group in the population with the smallest say in the politics.

Prominent Pakistani women have served as the prime minister, foreign minister, and ambassador to the United States.  Yet for thousands of others, voting is not understood to be an equal right.

In the 2008 election, a meager 38% of registered women voters cast ballots (50% of men cast votes). In that same election, 564 polling stations did not tabulate one single female vote.

The security situation, especially in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Khyber Pakhtunkwa province (KP), cause many women to refrain from voting all together. More than 40 members of Awami National Party (ANP), a popular secular party in KP, have been killed since campaigning began this spring.

The Pakistani Taliban has claimed responsibility for many of these attacks. Karachi has had an onslaught of attacks and targeted killings of politicians for months now.

Security challenges aside, for women living in rural areas, voting is simply not seen as an equal right.  Some decades-old norms have dictated that a woman’s right to vote is un-Islamic, despite the legislative ruling otherwise.

Additionally, in 2008, several radical Islamic clerics declared that a woman who voted for a male candidate, whom she did not personally know, was ground for divorce. Under such circumstances, many women chose to withdraw from the electoral process altogether rather than be ostracized by their communities or threatened by the Taliban.

In other circumstances, women are attending the polls, but not exercising their independent vote. Their husbands or the male figure in their family often dictate their vote.

In regions where women are bound to the house and not allowed to attend rallies, becoming an informed voter can be a challenge.

This year the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) stated intent to enforce legislation that punishes those preventing women from voting-a sentence of three years in jail and fine of Rs5,000.  However, the same commission also announced a transportation ban by political parties to bring supporters to the polls.

For many rural women, along with the elderly and handicapped, who live far from polling locations, the cost and time burden of traveling to vote is too high.

In an effort to counter all the forces creating barriers for women, there has been an increase in grassroots effort. Shagufta Malik, a campaigner for the ANP, has been attending scores of meetings daily and going door to door to motivate women to vote this Saturday, especially around violence-prone Peshawar.

“The women’s vote is very important because they have a big role to play in deciding about the future of peace in our country,” she said. “We need to use this election as an opportunity to defeat the terrorists.”

In mid-April, the Pakistan Ulema Council, an organization of conservative clerics, issued a fatwa declaring that voting is a religious responsibility of all Pakistanis, including women.

The fatwa is a positive move for equal voting rights, but comes late in the season to convince all women to travel to polling stations, as the threat of violence is still very much present and the fatwa is not likely to change the feelings of extremists.

In a recent interview, Hafiz Tahir Ashrafi, head of the council said, “Today, women constitute some 52 percent of our population and they are part of every segment and every class of our society. Thus it would be highly unfair to prevent them from exercising their right to vote.”

Despite the many barriers in place, this election cycle has seen several women break through social taboos. Badam Zari successfully filed to run for a National Assembly seat in Bajaur Agency-the first-ever female political candidate from the FATA. Badam is running a campaign promising to strengthen the education system. Literacy rates in FATA are particularly low; as low as 5% for women.

Additionally, the region has suffered the brunt of Taliban attacks on schools, destroying 500 in recent years.

“We are extremely backward due to soaring militancy [which has sent the tribal population] back to the Stone Age,” Badam noted. “The people need education before they can play their role in developing FATA.”

Badam’s candidacy has drawn both praise and criticism. Women from her region are hailing her, while competitors are quick to claim that she is violating tribal customs.

“She is a beacon of hope for women who never venture out of their homes on polling day,” a Bajaur resident told Central Asia Online. Badam will face Hidayatullah Khan, brother of the KP governor, on election day.

Whether she wins or loses, her candidacy has highlighted the potential and importance of women in Pakistani politics, especially those not from political dynasties.

In Dera Ismail Khan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, former actress Mussarat Shaheen is making headlines for taking on Maulana Fazlur Rehman, leader of the conservative Jamiat-e Ulema Islam (Society of Muslim Clerics).

His group seeks to turn Pakistan into a Shari’a state. Mussarat hopes to convince the electorate that Rehman has been deceiving residents in the name of religion for decades.

Mussarat, a former star of the Pashtu film industry Pollywood, has been taunted and even received death threats. “I will be proud if I die for the rights of the people of Dera Ismail Khan and Pakistan,” she said.

Government authorities have vowed to deploy 600,000 security personnel to prevent attacks on any of the 73,000 polling stations or at political rallies this week.

We can only hope that the 37 million registered women are able to exercise their vote this Saturday. The country needs to hear the voices and votes of millions of Pakistani women this election cycle.

Kelsey L. Campbell is a foreign affairs specialist with the Office of the Secretary of Defense.  She is currently serving in Pakistan with USAID.  

This article originally appeared at: http://afpak.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/05/09/pakistans_missing_voices

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