May Issue 2013
Yes, She Can
Despite most mainstream political parties championing equality and empowerment of women, there has been no significant increase in the number of women participating in electioneering since the past two elections of 2002 and 2008 — both as candidates as well as voters. Since women constitute around half of the country’s population, this significant underrepresentation of women in the electoral process is cause for concern.
According to the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN), a network of non-government organisations that monitors elections, there are over 10 million women who are not even registered as voters for the upcoming elections on May 11. The most common reason for women not being registered is the fact that they don’t have the proper documentation needed to obtain National Identity Cards (NICs), which, in turn, are essential to register as voters.
And going by previous elections, it is likely that of those that are registered, a sizeable number will be prevented from voting by an amalgamation of various factors. Statistics provided by FAFEN indicate that women were barred from voting at 564 of the country’s 64,176 polling stations in the 2008 elections. These factors include tribal customs which prohibit women from voting, inaccessibility of polling stations and lack of male family members to accompany women to the polling stations. Collusions and tacit agreements between political parties also often prevent women from casting their votes. In some constituencies in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in order to restrain women from casting votes, local police was asked for help and polling was stopped. In many parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, political parties believe that it would be easier to poll bogus votes at women’s polling stations.
The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has maintained that they will ensure that women are not barred from voting in any constituency in the upcoming elections. To that end, it has declared that if any constituency shows less than 10 percent of women having voted, the results would be considered invalid and there would be re-polling in that constituency. When the ECP presented this rule to political parties, every single one of them, the religious as well as the supposedly secular ones, rejected the proposition, deeming it unnecessary to make efforts to ensure even a 10 percent women voter turnout. Nonetheless, it would seem that this time it would be difficult for political parties to stop women from voting because all of them, including religious parties, have agreed that women should vote. Even in places like Malakand, where women have never voted before, religious parties have agreed to bring women to the polling stations. Additionally, the number of polling stations for women has been increased.
Organisations such as FAFEN and the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW) have put forth recommendations to the election commission about how increased female participation can be ensured. One recommendation is to have trained female personnel manage women polling stations and to make new polling stations open to both male and female voters. It remains to be seen if these recommendations will be implemented and if the election commission will actually follow through with their rule of rejecting results where there are less than 10 percent female votes.
Considering the obstacles facing women voters, it is unsurprising that women form a tiny portion of the candidates contesting the upcoming elections. According to FAFEN, women constitute only 3.94% of the 4,108 candidates for National Assembly seats. Out of these 162 women candidates, around 67% are from Punjab, 19% from Sindh, 9% from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 0.03% from Islamabad Capital Territory and 0.01% from Balochistan. According to a report by the Women and Politics in Asia Forum (WPAF), the involvement of women in political activities is more socially acceptable in the Punjab, since they have an agricultural economy where both men and women are active participants and communal interaction at the social and political level between genders is relatively acceptable.
Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has the highest number of women candidates on the general seats in the National Assembly (11), followed by PML-N (7) and MQM (7). PML-Q and PTI have awarded only four party tickets each to women, while Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) and Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) have, as usual, awarded no party tickets to women candidates. It must be noted that compared to the previous elections in 2008, the PPP has decreased the number of its tickets to women candidates whereas the PML-N and MQM have both shown an increase.
While it is true that most women candidates contesting elections on party tickets belong to elite political families, overall these elections have seen women candidates from a variety of backgrounds. Take, for example, Veeru Kohli. Not only is she the first Hindu woman to contest elections in Pakistan, she is also a former bonded labourer. Having escaped a feudal landowner around 20 years ago, Veeru has since then helped other bonded labourers fight for their freedom. Her top priority is to end bonded labour everywhere — an illegal but widely prevalent form of serfdom where entire families are forced to work in deplorable conditions to pay off debts to the landowners. As she has no backing from any political party (she is running as an independent candidate from Hyderabad), the chances of her winning may be slim, but just the fact that she is contesting the elections gives her supporters hope for a more progressive future.
Another candidate is Nusrat Begum, who is the first woman in the Lower Dir district to ever contest elections. Nusrat Begum, who was the district vice president of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf, is also running as an independent candidate since the PTI awarded the party ticket to another candidate. She says that if elected, she would work to provide basic amenities to the people of her region — something which previous constituents from her region always failed to do.
Badam Zari, a tribeswoman from the Bajaur Agency, FATA, is also contesting elections as an independent candidate. She wants to become a powerful voice to the women of tribal areas, whose issues and concerns, she argues, are largely ignored by lawmakers. Education is Badam Zari’s top priority, since she was prevented from going to school as a child as it was considered improper for a girl. She wants to protect the young girls of her area from the same fate and wishes to make education available to all women. For both Nusrat Begum and Badam Zari, contesting elections poses a considerable risk, as they live in areas where the participation of women in political activities is widely disapproved. However, both reiterate that they have the support of not only the women of their area, but also men as well as tribal elders.
Born and raised in Lyari, 26-year-old Saniya Naz, a PPP candidate, is also an anomaly as she comes from a working-class background — a class often ignored by the PPP top cadre who handpick party candidates. Supported by the People’s Amn Committee, she is recognised in the neighbourhood for her volunteer work in various community projects. She is the only one out of her siblings to get an education and, as the youngest PPP worker vying for the party ticket, Saniya wants to further development work in Lyari and to help change negative perceptions of her neighbourhood.
Even though the number of women candidates is small, the fact that women are gaining the courage to contest elections from areas which are particularly oppressive for women is a refreshing change and might be the symbol of a brighter future for women in Pakistan. However, since threats from the Taliban as well as local customs still dictate that women should not engage in political activities, it is a long, difficult road to progress.
Nudrat Kamal teaches comparative literature at university level, and writes on literature, film and culture.