Pakistan Elections: Nation Got Woman PM In 1988, But Voting Still A Distant Dream For Many In This Village

With the Pakistan elections just a day away, it has come to light that women from certain areas in the neighbouring nation will not be allowed to practise their constitutional right and vote. According to news agency AFP, although voting is a constitutional right for all adults in Pakistan, some rural areas in the socially conservative country still follow a patriarchal system led by male village elders who wield significant influence in their communities.

A woman, Naem Kausir, told the news agency that she wanted to cast her vote, but could do so only if the men in her family allowed her. Like all women in her town, the 60-year-old former headmistress and her seven daughters — six of whom are university-educated — are forbidden from voting by their male elder in the village of Dhurnal in the Punjab province.

Regardless of whether it’s her husband, father, son, or brother, a woman lacks the autonomy to make decisions independently, Kausir said. “These men lack the courage to grant women their rights,” the widow told AFP.

Why Women Aren’t Allowed To Vote

According to the report, the village, which is spread across crop fields, and is home to a few thousand people, men profess several reasons for the “ban” that has been in place for more than 50 years. “Several years ago, during a period of low literacy rates, a council chairman decreed that men would go out to vote and women would manage the household and childcare responsibilities,” Malik Muhammad, a member of the village council, was quoted as saying by AFP. He said the disruption just for a vote was said to be unnecessary.

 According to Kausir, “Women once fought among themselves at a polling station. Since then, our elders barred women from taking part in the elections.”

Many called it a tradition, while a shopkeeper, Muhammad Aslam said that it was to shield women from “local hostilities” regarding politics, including a past incident that seems distant and faded from memory in the village, involving an altercation at a polling station.

Meanwhile, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) stated that it has the authority to nullify the electoral process in any constituency where women are prevented from participating. However, the reality is that the progress is still slow, with millions of women still missing from voting. 

Elders for Dhurnal surprisingly rely on women from a neighbouring village to meet their quota of 10 women voters.Those who are allowed to vote are often pressured to pick a candidate of a male relative’s choice.

In Kohistan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province which is home to around 800,000 people, religious clerics claim that it is un-Islamic for women to participate in electoral campaigns.

Fatima Butt, a legal expert and women’s rights activist, highlighted that while Islam permits women to vote, the religion is often exploited or misinterpreted in Pakistan. “Regardless of their level of education or financial stability, women in Pakistan can only make decisions with the ‘support’ of the men around them,” she remarked.

First Woman Leader In The World Benazir Bhutto

In 1988, Pakistan gained global recognition for electing the world’s first Muslim woman leader — Benazir Bhutto. During her tenure, Bhutto implemented policies which aimed to enhance women’s education, and financial access, and combated against religious extremism, countering the era of Islamisation introduced by military dictator Zia ul-Haq, which curtailed women’s rights. 

However, over three decades later, the disparity remains stark, with only 355 women competing for seats in the national assembly in the upcoming election, compared to 6,094 men, according to the election commission, reported AFP.

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While Pakistan reserves 60 out of 342 National Assembly seats for women and 10 for religious minorities in the Muslim-majority country, political parties seldom permit women to contest outside of this quota. Those who do often rely on the support of male relatives already entrenched in local politics.

Access To Information Through Smartphones

Robina Kausir, a 40-year-old healthcare worker, expressed that an increasing number of women in Dhurnal aspire to exercise their voting rights but fear community backlash, particularly the stigma of divorce, which carries significant shame in Pakistani culture. Robina attributes part of this shift to increased access to information, facilitated by the widespread use of smartphones and social media. Supported by her husband, she is among the few willing to take the risk and challenge societal norms.

When cricketing legend Imran Khan swept to power in the 2018 election, Robina arranged for a minibus to take women to the local polling station. Only a handful joined her, but she called it a success. She now says she would do the same on Thursday. 

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