DISCOURSE on the Feb 18 election tends to be coloured more by self-adulation and premature optimism than by realism. Hyperbole abounds. The election is described as one of the fairest in the country’s history.
Such comments constitute an unwitting indictment because elections are meant to be free, fair and transparent. Unfortunately rigged elections have become the norm in Pakistan and the 1970 election stands out as an exception. The recent election can at best be described as relatively fair because the whistle was blown by the mainstream parties and civil society about the intention of the government to manipulate the vote through pre-poll rigging.
Despite the imperfections of the Feb 18 election, the outcome was consequential. Analysts have waxed eloquent about the rout of the so-called king’s party and the religious right as well as the ascendancy of moderates. However, only a few have commented on the role of women in the political process.
Sixty-four women contested general seats for the National Assembly this February and initial unofficial tallies indicated that a total of 15 were elected from Punjab and Sindh. In the provincial assemblies, 116 ran for general seats while just under 400 registered for the 60 National Assembly and 128 provincial assemblies reserved seats. This is a far cry from the first constituent assembly of 1947 which had only two women representatives and the 1955 constituent assembly which had none.
An unprecedented development was that women were allowed to vote in a few districts of South Waziristan, notably Wana. Though this break from the stultifying patriarchal tribal tradition was refreshing, it is only a modest beginning and the road ahead is strewn with pitfalls.
For instance in the lower Dir districts, where 145,377 women voters were registered, not even one woman turned up in any of the polling stations. This demonstrates the formidable roadblocks, ostensibly for religious reasons, in the way of empowerment of women who constitute 50 per cent of the country’s population.
Although there is no priesthood in Islam, self-appointed clerics arrogate to themselves the exclusive right to interpret religious doctrine. As a consequence, tradition and tribal norms are touted as articles of faith. The immediate casualty of these distortions is the Pakistani female whose political, economic and social rights are denied. Yet none other than Maulana Maududi supported Fatima Jinnah against Ayub Khan in the 1965 presidential election. More than three decades later, Benazir Bhutto had the support of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam.
The so-called religious right is not exclusively to blame for swerving from their declaratory principles towards the dictates of expediency. Some of the most progressive secular parties are no less culpable. For instance liberal parties, in their quest for votes in the NWFP, are known to have negotiated arrangements with tribal leaders under which women were denied their right to vote primarily due to tribal codes and a skewed interpretation of religion. Women political agents were placed in some of the polling booths for the sole purpose of preventing any female from voting.
Thus expediency and not sacrosanct principles has impelled both religious and liberal parties alike to make compromises for short-term political gains. In the context of Pakistan, the now virtually defunct MMA and obscurantist clerics would never concede the right of Muslim women to become the head of state or government despite their earlier support for Fatima Jinnah and Benazir Bhutto.
The Quran itself, however, is silent on how the leader of the community is to be chosen, the duration of the tenure and the method of succession. The absence of Quranic injunctions on these political details leaves ample space for the incorporation of modern concepts into the constitutions of Islamic countries. The only injunction is that the head of state should be a Muslim and there is nothing to stop a woman from becoming the chief executive.
Accordingly a significant number of Muslims have rejected the clerical viewpoint. Thus Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, Khaleda Zia and Hasina Wajid of Bangladesh, Tansu Ciller of Turkey and Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia have been prime ministers and president and some of them even served as leaders of the opposition in their respective countries. These nations, three of whom have populations of more than 150 million, collectively represent nearly half of the Islamic world.
Despite this, in Pakistan, as in other Islamic countries, only a few women have risen to prominence, whether in politics or in other areas of national endeavour. Without exception they have belonged to the privileged elite. In Pakistani politics most of them have inherited their family constituencies. This is as true of Benazir Bhutto as it is of Nasim Wali Khan who became the leader of the opposition in the NWFP Assembly.
The stranglehold of the privileged few over the masses will remain as long as there is poverty and illiteracy. An island of prosperity and privilege cannot sustain itself in an ocean of poverty. Despite persistent claims in recent years of impressive growth, the so-called trickle-down benefits have still not reached the silent majority. There can be no meaningful change in the political and social landscape without broad-basing prosperity.
It is clear, therefore, that the problem has to be tackled at the grassroots level, a term that is used frequently in Pakistan in any and all plans that deal with the eradication and overhauling of outdated and useless systems that prevail in the country. These plans remain on the drawing board and are seldom implemented.
Distorted interpretation of Islam cannot be exclusively blamed for the relegation of females to pariah status. The actual cause is illiteracy, primitive tribal codes, economic deprivation and commodification of women, all of which have been exploited by vested interests. This has resulted in a regression of social values to the pre-Islamic Jahaliya era in some areas of the country.
Against this backdrop, allowing women to vote in the Feb 18 election in areas of South Waziristan was a remarkable development and could be the harbinger of a gradual social transformation towards modernity. The process needs to be encouraged through genuine reform for only then will the masses become conscious of their inalienable rights. For this to happen, the shackles of tradition in the guise of religion will have to be broken and replaced by true enlightenment.