People & Society

Why bans persist on women voting across Pakistan

Updated 04 Oct, 2018 02:55pm
Photos by Rizwan Safdar
Photos by Rizwan Safdar

Dhurnal, a village in Chakwal district of Punjab, was home to the once legendary bandit Muhammad Khan. The stories of his criminal exploits reached almost mythical proportions in the 1960s.

Today, Dhurnal is a highly developed settlement. It is linked by road to many nearby towns and cities. (The tehsil town of Tala Gang is 45 kilometres to its east and Chakwal city another 45 kilometres in the same direction.) It has two government high schools for boys and one for girls. It also has separate degree colleges for boys and girls. The literacy rate, especially among women, is higher in Dhurnal than in most other villages across Punjab.

The village has another, though dubious, distinction: its women have never cast their votes since the 1960s. Their men have stopped them from voting.

The decision to bar women from voting was taken just before a general election in 1962. Several people had died in the village before that election in a feud between two local groups, says Zohar Khan, a 63-year-old local resident. Women were seen at the core of all that violence so a local panchayat, led by the then village head Meher Khan, decided to keep them away from polling and voting, he says.

Dhurnal is part of the National Assembly’s constituency NA-61 and Punjab Assembly’s constituency PP-23. A report published in the daily Dawn on January 01, 2017 says only 4.42 per cent of all women voters in NA-61 came out to vote in the 2013 general election. It was one of the seven National Assembly constituencies in Punjab where the turnout of women voters was less than five per cent.

(The lowest turnout of women voters in the province, 1.92 per cent, was recorded in Multan district’s NA-152. In Muzaffargarh’s NA-178, Rajanpur’s NA-175 and NA-174 and Okara’s NA-145, the turnout of women voters stood at 2.13 per cent, 2.34 per cent, 2.71 per cent and 2.82 per cent, respectively.)

Dhurnal has a population of more than 15,000 and Awans – referred to as maliks – are the dominant caste here. The village has about 11,000 registered voters, according to local officials of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). Slightly less than half of them – about 5,000 – are women.

Young girls in Dhurnal, many of them highly educated, want to cast their votes but they are bound to follow the ban, says a local woman on the condition of anonymity. “I have a postgraduate degree and I know that voting is my constitutional and fundamental right but still I cannot exercise it since I need the permission of men in my household to do so,” she says.

What makes the permission impossible is the collective and religious nature of the ban. When it was imposed, every elder in the village endorsed it and then they raised their hands in prayer, seeking divine validation for their decision — a process locally known as dua-e-khair. No single household can violate it. Otherwise, it will face both social and religious boycott. Until another panchayat makes a collective decision to let women vote and then seals it with a prayer to God, there is no chance that the ban is breached or overturned, she says.

Women are not allowed to vote in many neighbouring villages either, such as Dhaular, Balwal, Mogla and Dhoke Dhall. And for the same reason: men have made a collective decision against women’s participation. An ECP document shows that not a single woman cast her vote at the 17 polling stations set up in these villages for the 2013 election.

Malik Yaran Khan, a local politician associated with the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN), says the rigid local ban means that election candidates do not even try to seek votes from women. And he sees nothing wrong with it. “If women are happy to follow local traditions, no one should have any objection to it.”

Sher Afzal, a member of Union Council Dhurnal, which includes all these villages, is the area’s only publically elected representative associated with Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. He, too, canvassed only for male votes when he ran for local government elections in 2015. “We are slaves of our own traditions. Asking women to participate in political affairs is considered a sin here,” he says.

He could not have become a councillor had he asked women to vote for him because he would have lost all support among male voters. “My opponents would have used my stance for their political benefit,” he explains.

Muhammad Ashraf Malik, district coordinator for Aurat Foundation, a national-level civil society organisation that works on gender equality and women rights, has been working in Dhurnal and other rural areas of Chakwal to educate women voters about their electoral rights. He is also a member of the ECP’s 15-member Voter Mobilisation Committee in the area, and believes the ECP should convince male villagers that they should allow women to vote. “Prayer leader at local mosques should be especially motivated to deliver sermons regarding the importance of women’s votes,” he says. Additionally, he says, “Educated women should be encouraged to become part of voter mobilisation committees because they can better educate other women on their voting rights.”

Apart from the work done by the ECP and civil society organisations, some local politicians also seem to realise that something must be done about the ban on women voting. Malik Shehryar Awan, a PMLN member of the Punjab Assembly from PP-23, says he has already launched efforts to have it overturned and is optimistic that this will happen before the upcoming general election. In a phone conversation, he says he has asked Union Council Dhurnal’s two main political groups to meet both men and women in these villagers to ensure a satisfactory turnout of women voters in the next polls. “Our local leaders have already arranged a few meetings. They are trying hard to get rid of this old tradition.”

Awan himself plans to join these efforts soon. “We are also planning to arrange a collective dua-e-khair before the election to formally announce the end of this long-standing ban.”

The large village of 111/9-L Jahan Khan, 15 kilometres to the south of Sahiwal city, stands out for its conservative customs. With nearly 10,000 residents spread over three separate settlements – Jahan Khan Hatay, Shadoo Kay and Kubbay Kay – and consisting of over 1,000 households, it has a complete ban on voting by local women. In none of the national and provincial level elections since 1947 have the female residents of Jahan Khan cast their votes.

Landowning Joyas (Rajputs) are the dominant caste in the village, which falls in the National Assembly’s constituency NA-161 and Punjab Assembly’s constituency PP-220. Wattoos and Khokhars are other castes that have a large presence here, as do some lower castes whose members perform menial tasks.

Dhurnal is well-linked to other towns and settlements
Dhurnal is well-linked to other towns and settlements

Joyas take pride in being members of a high caste. Their women observe strict pardah and the idea of family honour is extremely strong among them. Allowing women to cast votes for strangers is something they consider against their caste pride and religious ideals. “Are we men dead that our women have to leave their homes to cast votes?” says Shakar Khan, a 55-year-old local resident. Predictably, he comes from a Joya family.

Women who take part in any political activity are “vulgar” in his opinion. The same goes for women who become “ministers and appear on television screens for interviews”. Only low-caste women, according to him, can be allowed to take part in political activities. The lady councillor from the village comes from the menial Machhi caste.

Javed Iqbal, the lambardar of Jahan Khan, echoes Shakar Khan’s point of view. “Our clan does not give any consideration to women’s role in politics,” he says. No family can defy the clan’s rules by allowing a woman to cast her vote or become a lady councillor, he adds.

Knowing that the turnout of women voters has been zero in previous elections in Jahan Khan, the ECP set up a separate polling station in Jahan Khan Hatay during the 2013 general election for the village’s 685 registered women voters. None of them came to the polling station to vote.

The number of women voters in Jahan Khan has increased to 1,755, as per documents at the ECP’s Sahiwal office. Yet it is highly unlikely that any of them will vote in the next election.

Khuda Yar, 51, a resident of Shadoo Kay settlement, reveals that women are bound to abstain from voting by a decision made by the village elders as far back in 1962. “We have inherited this decision and we have tried our best to uphold it,” he says.

If a local family allows its women to vote, he says, tongues will wag about its morals. “This will be seen as insulting and disgraceful not for that family alone but for the whole local Joya clan.”

Jahan Khan has only one government primary school for girls. The literacy rate among local women is consequently low. Men do not want their sisters and daughters to be educated beyond the primary level because that will require them to travel to Sahiwal or other neighbouring villages to attend middle and high schools. “Women are supposed to perform domestic chores. They do not need higher education. They should pass primary school and remain in the four walls of their houses until they are married off,” says Khuda Yar, articulating the world view prevalent among local men. “Higher education is a trap that may turn away young girls from our caste traditions.”

These restrictions relent only so far as to allow women to vote in local government elections. “Candidates from our own village and Joya clan contest these elections so the men ask us to cast votes for them and we do,” says Mukhtaraan Bibi, a 66-year-old woman from the village. “In general elections, nobody cares about women voters.”

Many locals say the reason why women in the village do not vote is that they are afraid to be in public spaces – a point of view also espoused by Mukhtaraan. “If men guard women and ask them to vote, they will,” she says.

A main street in Devidas Pura
A main street in Devidas Pura

The lambardar Iqbal also holds the same opinion. “Women do not go out to vote because they are scared of being touched, teased and harassed by men at polling stations,” he says.

One of the main factors behind this sense of fear is that two Joya families have been engaged in a blood feud that has caused many violent fights in the recent past. “This enmity has divided the village’s main settlement into two parts. To avoid more fighting it has been collectively decided that nobody from one side will go to the other side,” says Iqbal. “Do you think it is possible for women to cast their votes at a polling station in this kind of a situation?”

Sabira Bibi, 28, is Jahan Khan’s lady councilor. She is uneducated and lives in a single-room old house with her husband and other members of her family. She is surprisingly well aware of the power that politics can bestow on women. “Unfortunately, men cannot tolerate empowered women,” she says.

Sabira believes men need to be educated by government and non-governmental agencies about the need for letting women vote. She is planning to initiate an awareness campaign in her village to ensure maximum women turnout in this year’s general election. “I will try my level best to sensitise women of both the Joya and Macchi clans [about the importance of voting],” she says, but also knows who has the power to make a decision. “If Joya women agree to vote then nobody will feel reluctant to follow them.”

Alweera Rashid, district coordinator of Punjab Lok Sujag, a civil society organisation, points out that the turnout of women voters was zero not just in Jahan Khan but also in two other villages (65/4-R, 101/12-L) in Sahiwal district in the 2008 election. In order to mobilise women voters, her organisation held a street theatre show in these villages just before the 2013 general election. “As a result of our efforts, women turned out to vote in two out of the three villages.”

Those from Jahan Khan still didn’t vote.

“We faced huge resistance in Jahan Khan. Men in the village did not want us to stage our play there. We still went ahead with it in the presence of police but it attracted a very low female attendance,” Alweera says.

Chak No 295 JB Devidas Pura used to be a Hindu-majority village before 1947. Located at the end of a link road that connects it to the main highway between two towns, Gojra and Toba Tek Singh, the village is now inhabited mostly by the descendants of Rajput migrants from east Punjab. Some Gujjar and Arain families also live here.

Devidas Pura has a population of over 4,000 and has 1,965 registered voters — only 716 of them are women. One major reason for this huge disparity in men and women voters is that the latter do not have Computerised National Identity Cards (CNIC), a mandatory document for anyone who wants to register as a voter.

But even if all voting-age women in the village had their votes registered, it would mean nothing to them. They have never voted.

Originally, women from only Rana families were barred by their men from voting, but the ban gradually expanded to other families as well. “Women cannot go to a place like a polling station where men are gathered in large numbers,” says Rana Muhammad Jabbar, 40, a local resident. “If women leave their houses and go to a place where men are present, something unpleasant is bound to happen. That is why men do not allow women to leave their houses without their permission,” he says.

As is the case with anything forbidden, the ban has made local women curious about elections. Nusrat Bibi, a 50-year-old local woman, wants to go through the process of voting at least once in her life. “Not just me but many other women in the village, particularly young educated girls, want to use their right to vote, especially for a woman candidate,” she says. “But unfortunately no one can dare stand against the decision of the male elders because of the heavy costs involved.”

The costs she mentions could mean a complete social boycott.

Sher Afzal, Dhurnal’s only publically elected representative associated with  PTI
Sher Afzal, Dhurnal’s only publically elected representative associated with PTI

Muhammad Javed, the village’s lambardar, acknowledges that “times have changed” but is not ready to allow women to exercise their right to vote without permission from their men. “We men will sit together prior to the upcoming general election to decide if women can vote,” he says. Just as they have done before every election in the past.

Some signs suggest the male consensus against women’s voting is not as watertight as it was until recently. Rana Shahbaz, 32, who has worked as a PMLN activist while studying at Punjab University in Lahore for his MPhil in international relations, is one local resident determined to overturn the ban on women voting. Working in collaboration with the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN), a conglomerate of civil society organisations, he recently arranged three meetings at his residence for over 150 women to train them on the importance of voting.

“I am leading a door-to-door campaign to mobilise the women of my clan to cast their votes,” says Shahbaz. He has also asked the ECP office in Toba Tek Singh to set up a separate polling station for women in Devidas Pura. He is optimistic that this will help women come out and vote.

The district office of the ECP, too, is running a voter education campaign throughout Toba Tek Singh with a special focus on Devidas Pura. “Our staff is trying to convince both men and women of the village through a voter education campaign that women must be allowed to use their constitutional right to vote and there must be no restrictions imposed on them by men,” says district election commissioner Mian Aslam. He is also ‘trying his best’ to set up a separate polling station for women in the village for the coming election.

Muhammad Yar, a tall man with a short black beard and a smiling face, enthusiastically directs his staff to expedite the polling process as voting time nears its end on February 20 this year. He is working as a presiding officer at a polling station at the spacious Government Higher Secondary School for Boys in Samarbagh village of Lower Dir district.

This is not an ordinary polling station. Jamaat-e-Islami chief Sirajul Haq’s family home is just close by.

A woman working in a field  in Dhurnal
A woman working in a field in Dhurnal

The polling is taking place for a tehsil council seat. Thirty minutes are left before voting time ends and yet only 70 people have cast their votes. The number of voters registered at the polling station is 1,400.

Even the few votes polled have been cast without the mandatory presence of the polling agents of the contesting candidates. Their absence, indeed, posed a major legal problem for Muhammad Yar at the start of polling.

Election laws require presiding officers to show empty ballot boxes to polling agents before sealing the boxes and making them available to voters. When no polling agents showed up, Muhammad Yar phoned his returning officer in the district headquarters of Timergara. The officer advised him to show the boxes to all polling and security staff working with him and get on with polling. “This is how we started the polling process,” he says.

Higher education is a trap that may turn away young girls from our caste traditions.

The presiding officer at a women-only polling station at the Government Girls Higher Secondary School Samarbagh adopted the same procedure to let voting begin. By the end of the day, only two out of 1,000 registered women voters cast their votes at her polling station.

This election in Lower Dir is a re-polling. It is taking place after the ECP ruled on February 6 that an earlier polling held for a local government seat in the district was invalid because less than 10 per cent of registered women voters had cast their votes.

For polling to be valid, there needs to be a 10 per cent women voter turnout, as per the Elections Act 2017, promulgated on October 2, 2017. “If the turnout of women voters is less than 10 per cent of the total votes polled in a constituency, the [Election] Commission may presume that the women voters have been restrained through an agreement from casting their votes and may declare polling, at one or more polling stations or election in the whole constituency, void,” reads the relevant section of the act.

Muhammad Yar wonders if the virtual boycott of the polling is a protest against this provision.

Ahmedullah, the brother of a Jamaat-e-Islami candidate for a tehsil council seat, concedes that there has been an understanding among the candidates to boycott the re-poll. “Yes, all the candidates have agreed not to take part in this election.”

They have two objections: the ECP has given them only 14 days to mobilise the voters and the condition of 10 per cent women voter turnout violates local customs. “In our culture, it is deemed insulting if you ask someone to take the female members of his family out of his home to help them cast their votes,” Ahmedullah explains.

Abdur Rasheed Khan, a member of the Munda tehsil council in Lower Dir district, agrees with Ahmedullah. Associated with the Awami National Party (ANP), he says political parties can sacrifice seats in village councils and tehsil councils but they will not defy local traditions.

Khungi Bala is a hamlet seven kilometres north of Timergara. It is one of the 21 areas in Lower Dir district where re-polling is being held on February 20. At a local polling station, the staff is sitting lazily in a lawn in the afternoon as only two out of 916 registered voters have cast their votes. It seems unlikely that more voters will show up any time soon.

A road leading to the village of Jahan Khan, 15 kilometres south of Sahiwal city
A road leading to the village of Jahan Khan, 15 kilometres south of Sahiwal city

Malik Ulfat Hayat, one of the contesting candidates, is present at the polling station — not to cast his vote though. He is here to ensure that other candidates do not bring their voters to the polling stations.

Murad Ali, an ANP worker in the village, is certain that the deserted look of the polling station is due to a “silent protest” against the condition of 10 per cent mandatory women votes. It is a shame for a party like his own to become part of any agreement that restricts women from voting, he says. Barring women from voting, according to him, is akin to insulting the leadership of a liberal and progressive party like ANP.

Ali is also critical of the idea of attaching a community’s honour only to restrictions on women’s voting. “[Local communities] have no problem when hundreds of women gather in long queues [to receive] 2,000 rupees [from the Benazir Income Support Programme]. “It also does not challenge their honour when girls go to schools, colleges and universities as far as Peshawar and other parts of the country.”

Whatever the reason for the restriction, the election authorities appear to be mindful of them and are taking steps to address them. For instance, it is now a crime to restrict women from voting. Anyone trying to do that can be tried and penalised under the Elections Act 2017.

Saira Shams, 40, is a district council member in Lower Dir district but she has never voted herself. “I am against women voting,” she says. Associated with the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), she has no problem with men disapproving of women coming out of their houses to vote.

One major reason for this huge disparity in men and women voters is that the latter do not have Computerised National Identity Cards (CNIC).

This is not unusual in this part of the country. Every political party in Lower Dir and Upper Dir districts – including the right-wing Jamaat-e-Islami – has its women wing, not just at the district and tehsil levels but also at the village council level. But even these party office bearers do not exercise their right to vote.

The same is true for government employees.

Fifty-year-old Mehr Sultana, a member of the staff at a polling station in Lower Dir district, has never voted. Being a teacher, she comes out of her house every day and her family has no objection to it. But whenever she makes up her mind to cast her vote, she drops the idea, fearing it may have dire, though unknown and unspecified, consequences for her. “Our male family members become Pakhtuns only when we want to exercise our right to vote,” she says.

Ghulam Rasheed, an ANP member in Lower Dir, says the mandatory condition of 10 per cent female votes may bring about the change women need to start casting their votes.

Some signs of this have appeared already. Only two women had cast their votes at the Government Girls Higher Secondary School polling station in Ziarat area of Lower Dir in the last polling held here on December 21, 2017. As many as 256 women cast their votes at the same polling station on February 20, 2018. In the union council where this polling station is situated, 806 women cast their votes in the most recent poll, constituting 12.82 per cent of all women voters registered here. This is certainly an improvement over almost zero women votes cast in earlier elections in this union council.

Rasheed calls this increase the first drop of rain after a drought and gives election authorities and recent legislation under the Elections Act 2017 credit for making it happen. If election officials had not forced people, they would not have let their women use their right to vote, he says.

Nighat Siddique was surprised when she first saw electoral symbols like bangles, earrings, pacifiers and brooms back in 2015. She asked who would ever opt for such ridiculous symbols. “They will be suitable for any woman looking to contest elections,” she was told.

A political gathering in Jahan Khan
A political gathering in Jahan Khan

Nighat, who has been working as additional secretary (gender affairs) at the ECP headquarters in Islamabad for the last three years or so, believes there has been an evident improvement lately in awareness about gender representation in electoral politics. This is primarily because the present team at the ECP is open to discussions as well as to trying out new things, she says. “Increasing the participation of women in electoral processes was never a particularly important priority for anyone in the past, nor was there much awareness on how to go about it.”

Nighat insists that any major improvement will require addressing many administrative and cultural problems first. It is because of these problems that gender imbalance in voter registration is far higher than it is in overall population. Women to men ration in population is about 49:51 but the ratio of registered women voters to registered men voters, according to the ECP’s 2017 data, is almost 44:56. The total number of registered women voters is 12.17 million less than the total number of registered men voters. Six million women voters are missing in Punjab alone. In Pakistan’s two largest cities – Karachi and Lahore – the number of women registered as voters is one million less than men.

One of the major factors behind this gap is that, since the 2013 general election, the possession of a CNIC is a mandatory requirement for a citizen to be an eligible voter. The same laws also provide that a citizen automatically becomes a voter by obtaining a CNIC — no separate registration with the ECP is required any more. This means the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) essentially registers Pakistanis both as citizens and voters.

“We realised we could not leave the task of voter registration to NADRA alone,” Nighat says. So the ECP has started working with NADRA to help women get their CNICs and thereby become registered voters. “We have set a target to register 1.7 million women voters across 103 districts in Pakistan before the next election,” she says.

The problem is the ECP itself is severely understaffed. It has just a couple of officials in each district, making it heavily dependent on 69 civil society organisations it has partnered with in the districts where a campaign to provide CNICs to women and register them as voters in underway.

These organisations use the latest census data to find out how many women in a particular area do not have CNICs. These women are then either transported in groups to a nearby NADRA office or a mobile registration van is brought to their neighbourhoods if they live more than 10 kilometres away from a NADRA office. Having started the process in July 2017, the ECP has registered 514,000 new female voters as of February 2018.

The National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW), however, has estimated that it will take 18 years to bridge the existing gap between men and women voters if 5,000 new CNICs are issued to women every day. An analysis of NADRA’s registration capacity shows that it cannot achieve even that target. On average, it can issue 6,966 CNICs every day — 3,862 to men and 3,104 to women. These numbers suggest it may take close to 27 years to end the existing gap between men and women voters. Put increase in the population into the mix and a solution will look like it’s almost impossible.

A recent ECP study has aimed to find various problems that women face in getting CNICs. A large number of respondents – 27 per cent – said they did not need a CNIC; another 24 per cent said they did not have the time to get one. Only 13 per cent said their male family members did not support the idea of women getting CNICs.

Men are generally more willing to get themselves registered as voters than women due to cultural reasons, says Nighat who has spent many years working with the United Nations and the federal government in various roles related to women development. “Even if a woman wants to get registered as a voter, she may not know where to go or what to do.”

This explains why the CNIC requirement has had an unintended impact on the registration of women voters. Suddenly the number of voting-age women who are not registered as voters increased by 32.9 per cent between 2008 and 2017, according to a study done by NCSW.

Sairah Zaidi, an Islamabad-based election analyst who has worked with the government as well as with non-governmental organisations, believes “the ECP needs to ensure they set specific targets” in order to fill the gap in the registration of women voters. In her opinion, some steps that election authorities are taking now should have been taken five years ago. “It is already too late.”

But Zaidi acknowledges that some of the steps being taken lead in the right direction. One of the most crucial recent changes in terms of women’s participation in the electoral process is a provision in the Election Act 2017 that says votes polled have to be disaggregated – women’ votes are to be counted and recorded separately from those of men.

Considering that all the previous statistics of female voter turnouts have been based on estimates, this will now enable the government and independent observers to compile actual data on the participation of women voters in the electoral process, she says. This may produce more focused analyses on the nature of the problem, eventually leading to its solution, she adds.

Additional reporting by Danyal Adam Khan

This article was published in the Herald's March 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.