On National Voters’ Day last week, the new Sindh Governor, Justice (r) Saeeduz Zaman Siddiqui, made a bold proposal. In a seminar organised by the Election Commission of Pakistan, Siddiqui called for the criminalisation of the act of stopping women from casting votes in general elections. Moreover, Siddiqui proposed that the result of any electoral constituency where the female turnout was below a bare minimum be withheld. The last proposal has been made before but has made no headway in parliament. However, it is the proposal to criminalise stopping women from casting votes that is more noticeable. In the 2013 general elections, a number of agreements to stop women from casting votes came into the public eye. However, no action was taken against the practice as winning candidates were able to retain their seats in such constituencies. Criminalisation would go a step further in terms of restraining candidates from stopping women from voting on the basis of archaic social mores.
It would, however, be incumbent on us to ask whether such a measure would be effective. Who would be responsible for filing such a case? And will local and national authorities ever be serious about enforcing any such legislation? Laws against honour killing, domestic violence and sexual harassment now exist in most provinces, but there has barely been an improvement in the social rights and freedoms granted to women. Instead, it is women themselves who have been the most resilient. In the 2013 general elections, Pakistan’s women voted in record numbers. Women’s participation in local bodies elections was also higher, both as candidates and as a percentage of voters. There are serious issues that still exist in terms of more conservative constituencies, which require strong engagement as well as punitive action by the federal and provincial governments. Ensuring women’s right to vote is integral to maintaining the legitimacy of Pakistan’s democratic system. It is unfortunate that, despite 70 years of independence, we are yet to come to a point when women can contest general election seats as equal candidates instead of being brought into parliament on reserved seats. There is a long journey ahead in the struggle for women getting equal political rights in Pakistan. The Sindh governor’s proposal could become an important counter-measure to ensure that women’s right to cast votes is protected.