Women living in comparatively more conservative parts of the country, such as Dir and parts of Mianwali district have routinely been denied the right to vote. Sad as it is, even the major mainstream parties, the PPP and the PML-N, have been colluding with local influentials to disenfranchise women. A few brave women, who came out in Dir in a previous election supported by activists of a non-governmental organisation, were forced to turn back.
Soon after taking over as Chief Election Commissioner Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim promised to right that wrong, saying the Election Commission would cancel results in any constituency where the number of women casting their votes is less than ten percent of the registered woman voters.
There is need also to create conditions that encourage greater woman participation. This aspect of the issue was ignored in the PB-18 by-election for a Balochistan Assembly seat held on Monday. It should serve as an instructive example for the Election Commission to make separate arrangements for the bigger upcoming event. The Free and Fair Election Network (Fafen), which monitored the polling exercise, points out in a report that ECP did not set up woman polling booths in about 75 of the polling stations monitored by observers.
The provincial Election Commission chief, Sultan Bayadid, himself is reported to have acknowledged that there were no ‘women only’ polling stations, but that all 67 polling stations had separate booths for men and women. No wonder, by Bayadid’s own admission the turnout of woman voters was negligible, which he ascribed to a social trend in the province. The reason behind that ‘social trend’ of course is the same as the one in other areas where men openly refuse to let women vote in the name of old traditions. An example of how those traditions are set is that of the Kalabagh area in Mianwali district. There, a tribal jirga had decided to ban women’s voting decades ago, but now that PTI activist Ayla Malik, daughter of Nawab Allah Yar Khan, is preparing to participate in elections; a jirga met recently to overturn the old ban.
The Fafen report also notes incidents in which women were barred from voting in the said by-election, and attempts of proxy voting on behalf of women voters. That is a test case for the ECP’s resolve to ensure that no one robs the woman population of its right to vote. Towards that end, Fafen has made an important suggestion, saying that even if re-polling is not held in the entire constituency, fresh voting must be ordered in areas where women were barred from casting their votes. That would be the most effective single step to bring about a change for the better. Men will stop disenfranchising women only when they know they have to pay a price for it.