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Transforming women into equal citizens

By: Samira Shackle

The forthcoming election is cause for good cheer. If all goes according to plan, it will be the first time in Pakistan’s 66-year history that a civilian government has lasted a full term and transferred power to another through elections. This is a significant step forward for the country’s nascent democracy.

But how inclusive will this democracy be? So far, the numbers suggest that a big demographic — women — will be drastically under-represented. The latest draft electoral rolls include 47.77 million men, but just 36.59 million women. Gender divisions in Pakistan are roughly equal, which means that around 10 million women are unaccounted for, and will, therefore, be unable to vote. Where are these missing women?

The most obvious reason that these women are not registered to vote is that the electoral roll is tied to the NADRA system, and in many parts of the country, women are less likely than men to have signed up for a computerised NIC. It is not uncommon for men to actively discourage their wives, sisters and daughters from voting or registering for a CNIC, in order to limit their participation in public life. The numbers have not increased despite door-to-door campaigns by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). According to reports, men frequently do not report the existence of female members of their families. This can either stem from the belief that women should not engage in politics, or from a desire to protect female relatives from government interference by keeping their existence off records. In conflict-ridden areas, such as Fata and Balochistan, people may feel that they do not want to be registered with a government they do not view as legitimate. Most ECP employees going from house to house are male, which does not help with access to women.

With just a few months to go before the election, there is a limited amount that can be done about these lost female voters. In order to vote, they must have a CNIC. If they do not have one, the ECP has little choice other than to refer them to NADRA. But putting the technicalities of registration aside, there are also social constraints on women. In the more conservative areas, they may be unable to leave the house on their own. The 2008 election saw many reports of village elders in the northwest deciding that women should not cast their votes. Polling stations in themselves may be difficult for lone women to broach, as they are staffed by and crowded with men.

So, what can be done? In the short term, separate female-only polling booths staffed by women may encourage those women who are registered to come out and cast their votes. Some areas already have segregated polling stations, but last year’s by-elections showed that provisions were not made across the board. In the longer term, both, government and society, need to re-evaluate how they see this sizeable demographic. After all, women make up half of all potential voters. If they were seen as the serious electoral force that they could be, it could transform politics and society.

The introduction of quotas for female parliamentarians has had a broadly positive impact. A raft of pro-women legislation has been introduced, including the criminalisation of acid violence and the introduction of anti-harassment laws. How effectively these policies are implemented is a separate issue that comes down to an underfunded and broadly misogynistic police force and court system. However, in addition to improving implementation, the leading parties would do well to increase awareness of these policies and reach out to the untapped female vote.

While quotas of women in parliament have been successful, a proposal for quotas of female voters has been roundly rejected. The ECP proposed last year that results of polls be deemed invalid if less than 10 per cent of the votes were cast by women. Despite hopeful initial signs, in the end, the proposal was deemed too controversial and it was voted down by all the political parties. Ten per cent is a dismal figure, considering that women are actually 50 per cent of the population. It is depressing — yet, sadly unsurprising — that even achieving such a small percentage would probably have been too much in some areas.

Pakistan’s public life has always been full of articulate, forthright women. Benazir Bhutto made history in 1988 when she became the first woman elected to head a Muslim country. Fatima Jinnah was a key figure in the Pakistan movement, alongside her brother. Today, activists such as human rights lawyer Asma Jahangir enrich public debate, both within Pakistan and internationally. Women such as Hina Rabbani Khar and Sherry Rehman are at the forefront of politics. So, it is easy to forget that the majority of women are disenfranchised and disempowered.

Reserving seats for women in the upper and lower houses is an important part of the process of equalising society. But those women who do make it to the top of public life are invariably from the upper echelons of society, where gender subordination is somewhat less prevalent. The next vital step towards equality will be encouraging direct participation from the vast majority of women, who are not drawn from these privileged backgrounds but still make up half the country’s population.

Across the country, patriarchy is deeply entrenched. Honour crimes, forced marriages and sexual violence are endemic. Among vast swathes of the population, women are seen as property and treated as second-class citizens, unable to choose when they become pregnant, let alone who they vote for. Recalibrating how politics and society sees women will be a huge task. If Pakistan can take its notable successes — prominent and inspirational women at the front of public life, for a start — and translate it into meaningful change at the grassroots level, it would be a major step forward politically and economically. Until then, we are some way off from transforming women from a voiceless and disenfranchised mass into the stakeholders and equal citizens they deserve to be.

The Express Tribune