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A look into the turnout of women voters for the 2018 elections

Updated Sep 18, 2018 06:03pm
A woman casts her vote at a polling station in Gulbahar, Peshawar | Photos by Ghulam Dastageer
A woman casts her vote at a polling station in Gulbahar, Peshawar | Photos by Ghulam Dastageer

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Not a single woman voted in Kerai.

A three-kilometre long mud track leading up a mountain from the Bisham-Swat highway ends in this scenic village, surrounded by green mountains. It is one of the hundreds of settlements that constitute Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly’s constituency PK-23 in Shangla district. In this year’s general elections on July 25, a long-imposed ban on women voting in the village was in force once again.

Something similar must have happened in many other parts of the constituency. Out of a total of 86,698 registered female voters here, only 3,505 cast their ballots on polling day. This low turnout, as per an election law passed in 2017, led the Election Commission of Pakistan to order a re-election in the constituency.

Signs are that women in Kerai will not vote even in the re-election scheduled for October 14, 2018. “We will not let our women cast votes,” says Bahr-i-Rome, an 85-year-old resident of the village. Voting by women, he says enthusiastically raising his arm, “violates our tradition of haya [modesty]”.

Gul Husain, another resident of Kerai, is not as adamant as Bahr-i-Rome. He says local residents are not against women’s right to vote but they cannot allow them to vote at polling stations where men also vote. “Islam does not allow the mixing of males with females,” he says.

A long, grey beard touching his chest, Hussain says another reason why women in Kerai never vote is because the polling staff that deals with them is usually male. “We cannot let our women unveil their faces in front of male election staff to establish their identity,” he says.

In the 2018 elections, Hussain says, there were only two women among the five-member polling staff in his village. Male polling officials, male army personnel and policemen were all stationed inside polling booths allocated only for women, he says.

The absence of separate polling spaces with all female election staff has been reported from most parts of the constituency. All seven polling stations in Butyal union council were indeed mix. They had the same entrances and exits for male and female voters.

Afiya Hayat, who worked as a polling agent in one of them, saw two male election officials carrying out all the processes inside a women polling booth.

Attaur Rahman, a local associate of the Awami National Party (ANP), similarly, complains that there was not a single female election official in some polling booths for women in his Dandai village. No woman from his own family cast her vote in order to avoid being at a polling booth staffed by men.

Local political activists say they apprised election authorities in early July about the need for separate polling stations for women. No action was taken. “If the situation remains the same, we will not be able to convince women voters to poll their votes in the re-polling process too,” says a local leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).

Akbar Khan was 17 when he witnessed something that would become a rare occurrence soon afterwards: a large number of women coming in tongas to poll their votes in Timergara, the headquarters of Lower Dir district. That was way back in the 1977 general elections.

“Ours was not a society too conservative to bar women from casting votes,” he says and recalls how local “women polled their votes in a large number” during the 1970 general elections. This was a remarkable feat considering that the princely state of Dir had joined Pakistan only a year earlier and this was the first ever election that local residents were taking part in.

Akbar Khan, who has been campaigning for human rights causes for decades, blames the Islamisation of society under Ziaul Haq for the confinement of women within the four walls of their houses. In local government elections held in 1979, 1983 and 1987 and all the general elections afterwards, he says, women voters were barred from casting votes. This was sometimes ensured through verbal commitments and at other times through written agreements among local politicians.

News media highlighted this long-running ban multiple times in the past but it changed only late last year when the election commission applied the newly passed Election Act 2017 to annul 21 by-elections for local government seats in Lower Dir. In none of those elections did women voting reach the mandatory 10 per cent mark.

When re-polling happened for the same seats on February 20, 2018 candidates and political parties knew that polling could be annulled one more time if women were not allowed to vote. Their attitude to women voting changed dramatically.

“Those who used to declare women voting as haram, all of a sudden changed their stance and started calling it a jihad,” says Shad Khan, a human rights activist based in Timergara.

By the time the general elections arrived, there was already a positive atmosphere for women voters in the district. As many as 93,000 of them – out of a total of 278,083 female voters registered in Lower Dir – came out to vote on July 25. Compared to an almost nil voter turnout among local women in the 2013 elections, a 33.44 per cent turnout among them in 2018 certainly represents a major shift in local attitudes towards their participation in politics.

This percentage could have been higher if the election commission had banned male presence in polling booths for women or set up more women-only polling stations in the district, says Saira Shams, a local PTI leader.

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Haleema Bibi is a poor resident of Lilliani village in district Sargodha. Dressed in old tattered clothes on a recent August day, she is sitting on a charpoy in a mud house given to her family by a village landowner for whom she works. Hailing from the musalli community, which sits at the bottom of the social heap in central Punjab, she used her right to vote for the first time in 39 years of her life in the July 25 elections.

No woman in Lilliani has ever voted before.

Haleema says she would not have voted this time too if her employer had not asked her to do so. “I do not have anything to do with politics.” She does not even know the name of the candidate she voted for. “I was asked by the landlord to stamp my ballot on the symbol of bat because he was supporting Imran Khan,” she says.

Lilliani falls in the National Assembly’s constituency NA-89. It has a large number – 4,631 – of registered women voters so the election commission set up three women-only polling stations here. Yet Haleema was one of the only 97 local women who voted. Most of these voters were low-caste poor women — like her.

Local residents say these women, too, could vote because of a collective decision taken by the village’s two main landowning clans — Bakhars and Awans. Their elders decided that they would allow only 10 per cent female voters to cast their votes in order to fulfil the bare minimum voting requirements laid down in the Election Act 2017.

Lilliani is no small place and has a population of around 30,000. It is also not located in the back of beyond and is situated only about seven kilometres to the west of Kot Momin interchange on the Lahore-Islamabad Motorway. The village is surrounded by factories that process and grade citrus fruit before it is transported to markets in big cities as well as abroad. Local landowners are prosperous because their fertile lands produce some of the country’s best oranges.

All these commercial and communication links that Lilliani has with the rest of the world have failed to change the rigid local attitude about women voting. Its social values do not allow women any political freedom.

The ban on women voting was first imposed by the village elders in the 1960s, says Sheikh Mukhtar Awan, a local resident. Even though he has been working to have it overturned for many years, women from his own family do not cast their votes – they did not even vote in the July 25 elections – because of social pressure. “My clan will single me out as a pariah for taking women to a polling station,” he says.

Rana Shahbaz is travelling to his village 295-JB Devidas Pura in Toba Tek Singh district by a bus last month. He is constantly holding his prosthetic left leg to overcome the hurt it causes to his body due to the bumpy ride.

He has just had a meeting with the Regional Police Officer in Faisalabad with regard to a murder case registered against him. “I was nominated in a double murder case on May 27 this year by my political opponents in an attempt to stop me from running the election campaign of my party – Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz – and from mobilising women to cast their votes,” says Shahbaz, a 32-year-old, who was smitten by politics when he was studying at the Punjab University in Lahore for his MPhil in international relations. He had to go into hiding to avoid arrest. “They were successful in achieving their goal since I returned home on a protective bail just a day before polling.”

Turnout of women voters in his village remained zero on July 25.

Shahbaz has worked in collaboration with the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) and the Free and Fair Election Network (Fafen), a civil society forum, to help local women get their computerised national identity cards and have their votes registered. Partially as a result of his efforts, 922 local women have registered themselves as voters.

A female voter puts her thumbprint on her ballot in Peshawar
A female voter puts her thumbprint on her ballot in Peshawar

The election commission also set up a separate polling station for women in Devidas Pura but that did not convince local men to let women vote. They stuck to their decades-old decision to disallow them from doing so.

“It is not acceptable for men in our village to allow women to cast votes because politics is none of a woman’s business,” says Ghulfam Asghar, a local councillor. He went door-to-door before

elections to campaign against women’s right to vote. “We have our own values and we want to uphold those,” he says.

Sabira Bibi’s husband, Altaf Nawaz, was a National Assembly candidate for a constituency, NA-147, that covers Sahiwal city and many villages close by. An uneducated lady councillor, she did not have much of a personal and political clout in her village of 111-9L Jahan Khan. Coming from the Machhi clan which is considered way below landed clans in the conservative, caste-ridden local milieu, she focused on convincing other women like her – poor, uneducated and willing to partake in politics – to vote for her husband.

Altaf Nawaz could secure only 663 votes. At least 54 of them came from women voters in his own village. None of them had voted in any of the previous elections.

111-9L Jahan Khan is only 15 kilometres away from Sahiwal city but is ages apart in social and cultural practices. Its landowning elite barred women from voting as far back as 1947 — a restriction that has remained enforced in every election since then.

The village is divided into three main settlements and has 4,022 total registered voters. Out of these, 1,822 are women. Local politics revolves around a rivalry between two groups of the landowning Joiya clan. If one group supports a candidate or a political party, the other must oppose them.

It was in this divided political atmosphere that Sabira Bibi set out to mobilise local women to cast their ballots on election day. She spent the whole polling day getting women out of their homes, arranging transport for old and disabled among them to take them to two women-only polling stations in the village.

She was helped by a sister of her husband and his second wife who also worked as polling agents for him. “It was a great experience to guide woman about the voting procedure. They did not know how to cast their ballots since they were all voting for the first time,” says one of them.

Civil society organisations and news media also played important roles in creating an atmosphere in which it was no longer easy for the rival Joiyas to enforce the ban. It was partly due to their efforts that Sahiwal’s deputy commissioner issued a letter to five influential residents of 111-9L Jahan Khan in the run-up to the elections, telling them that they must not stop women from voting. “Preventing women from voting is a serious offence under election laws. You therefore are warned against indulging in such practice, in case you are found involved, action will be taken against you under relevant provisions of elections laws,” the letter read.

The warning worked. As many as 710 local women voted on July 25.

A cool breeze blowing after the previous night’s rain has made the weather pleasant in Dhurnal village but its main bazaars are deserted on an August morning. No one seems to be living here.

The village is known for its sleepy atmosphere. People remain in bed till late during the day and a general calm prevails around here. Where the locals are well awake and always alert is in maintaining their conservative customs and values — including a ban on women voting.

Before this year’s elections, three local residents – a midwife, a religious preacher and a civil society activist – set out to change this. They went to both men and women to raise awareness about the need for women voting. All their efforts could achieve was a rather nominal success: only 21 out of 5,501 registered women voters in Dhurnal polled their votes on July 25.

Yet it was a first in the history of the village.

“Asking women to vote here is like inviting people to boycott you socially and economically,” says the 38-year-old preacher. “When I started the voter mobilisation campaign, I was labelled as an agent working for some foreign organisation for the sake of money,” he adds.

Malik Muhammad Khan, a local resident, believes the turnout could have been higher if election authorities had acted wisely. He says he had submitted an application at the Election Commission of Pakistan’s Islamabad office on April 14, 2017 with the request that local polling stations for women be set up in buildings which do not have polling stations for men so that the two do not have to mix and mingle. His request was not granted.

Abdul Razzaq, Chakwal’s district election commissioner, acknowledges having received the application but explains that locations for polling stations were already chosen before it reached him. Now that a by-election is going to take place in the area on October 14 this year, he promises to set up polling stations for men and women in separate buildings.

Dhurnal’s neighbouring village, Balwal, experienced none of this activism. Not a single woman voted here on July 25 even though the village has 1,263 registered female voters.

“Allowing women to vote will result in disputes within families,” argues a 73-year-old village elder who once worked in the Pakistan Navy. What if women cast their votes according to their own choice, he asks. “Their independence will damage our family relations and family values,” he says. Politicians come and go, he says, but a family’s honour once gone is gone forever. “So, it is better for women to stay at home.”

The election commission knew the problem and held a meeting with the villagers a few days before the election to have the ban on women voting revoked. No one among local men was willing to be the first to allow women from his family to vote, says a local councillor. “Election authorities and district administration will have to take strict measures to make that happen,” he says.

Surprisingly, Dhurnal and Balwal fall in NA-65 which is one of the 18 National Assembly constituencies in the country where overall women voter turnout was higher than that of men in the 2018 elections.

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The 2018 general elections marked a significant milestone as gender-disaggregated turnout was recorded from all the polling stations for the first time. This was a requirement under the Election Act 2017 and enables stakeholders, including the Election Commission of Pakistan, political parties and civil society, to examine trends and patterns in women voting based on verifiable data.

Other historic firsts include a women voter registration campaign that surpassed all previous efforts and the enforcement of a new legal provision that nullifies election in those constituencies where women voter turnout remains less than 10 per cent.

Women voters passing through a polling booth in Peshawar
Women voters passing through a polling booth in Peshawar

So, has all of this led to improved turnout among women voters?

The 2018 elections data reveals a substantial difference in voter turnout for men and women. About 56 per cent of registered male voters turned out on election day to cast their votes as compared to 47 per cent of registered women who did the same. In terms of regional variations, Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan all had a voter turnout gap of about eight per cent between men and women while Khyber Pakhtunkhwa had a turnout gap of almost 19 per cent.

This is hardly surprising. Women of voting age in Pakistan are far less likely to possess a computerised national identity card that is mandatory for voting. They also face a host of sociocultural and economic barriers that make it difficult for them to travel the distance between their homes and polling stations to cast their ballots.

It is not easy to make a comparison with the past to see if the obstacles to women voting have increased or decreased. There are significant gaps in the data from previous elections that do not allow a measurement of improvements in 2018, if there were any, since this was the first election when polling station level turnout has become available. Analysis of women voter turnout in previous elections is based on incomplete data sets. Most studies of elections in 2008 and 2013 have relied on voter turnout from female only polling stations. This is problematic because it does not count results from mixed polling stations and may skew female turnout averages lower because women voters in Pakistan often rely on male relatives for transport to polling stations. Men are less likely to take women to a female only polling station that does not have an adjoining male polling station.

With these shortcomings in mind, a comparison of women voter turnout in the previous three general elections suggests that, overall, it has been relatively steady, at 46.46 per cent in 2018, 48.79 per cent in 2013 (counted from female polling stations only) and 37.05 per cent in 2008 (also gathered from female polling stations alone).

By digging deeper, one finds a different story — with marked regional disparities.

For instance, turnout averaged 17.71 per cent in 2008 in Malakand Division whereas it averaged 20.43 per cent in 2013 and 56 per cent in 2018.

In south Punjab, women turnout was 35.8 per cent in 2008 and 51.7 per cent in 2013 but it was 56 per cent in 2018.

In Karachi and Hyderabad, women turnout was 45.8 per cent in 2008, 44 per cent in 2013 and 45.6 per cent in 2018.

This suggests that certain regions have seen substantial increases in women voter turnout over the last three elections but there is an important factor at play here.

A massive gap exists between male and female voter registration. If women are under-registered, their turnout percentages rely on a lower number of registered women voters rather than the actual number of eligible women voters in an area. Given that there is a large voter registration gap between men and women in many constituencies, voter turnout data significantly overstates the level of women’s participation in the election. Closing this voter registration gap is thus critical to forming an accurate picture of women voter turnout.

Having already recognised this problem, the Election Commission of Pakistan launched a voter registration campaign in 2017 in partnership with civil society organisations in over 70 districts where female voter registration and/or the possession of computerised national identity cards among women were low. The campaign utilised a number of strategies, including the deployment of mobile registration vans to reach women in areas located far from NADRA offices. These efforts led to an increase of 4,307,553 women on electoral rolls in the span of seven months, showing an unprecedented rate of voter registration. In comparison, around 4.9 million women voters were registered between May 2013 and September 2017.

Despite these laudable efforts, the 2018 electoral rolls had 12.5 million less women registered voters as compared to men registered as voters. This could have resulted from sociocultural barriers against women’s registration as voters coupled with a rapid increase in the number of women who attained the voting age of 18 years after 2013.

Did voter registration campaign still have an impact on voter turnout on July 25? While further studies are needed that compare turnout changes in areas where the campaign was conducted against other parts of Pakistan, an overall analysis of women voter turnout and voter registration shows there is, indeed, a strong correlation between the two. Women voter turnout tends to be consistently higher in areas where more women are registered to vote. This suggests that a sustained drive to increase women voter registration has a significant impact on women voter turnout despite a host of other sociocultural barriers that hamper their participation in political and electoral processes.

In terms of reducing instances where women turnout is very low or zero, the new election law appears to have had a substantial impact. In 2013, women voter turnout was reportedly well below 10 per cent in 17 out of 272 National Assembly constituencies. In 2018, women voter turnout in only two National Assembly constituencies fell only nominally short of the 10 per cent requirement.

This suggests that candidates and political parties made targeted efforts to bring out women voters in order to ensure that elections in their areas were not nullified. The enforcement of the election nullification law in PK-23 in Shangla district has set an example for future elections and is likely to push candidates and political parties in areas with historically low women turnout to take the issue seriously.

Yet, it is also clear that a sustained, long-term drive for women voter registration is needed if the gap in women voter registration and turnout is to be tackled successfully. This drive should continue at high rates between electoral cycles and not just in the immediate pre-election period. Policies for automatic issuing of computerised national identity cards to every eligible voter should also be considered.

The minimum requirement for women voter turnout, too, needs to be raised in the future. The 10 per cent limit, while a step in the right direction, is the lowest the law could have aimed for. It was accepted after certain political parties raised objections against a higher percentage in the parliamentary committee on electoral reforms.

Policymakers, the election commission and civil society should also work together to draw additional insights from the gender-disaggregated data from this year’s election and develop creative policy solutions to increase women voter turnout. Without a long-term commitment, eligible women voters will continue to be underrepresented in elections.


Ghulam Dastageer is a staffer at the Herald. Rizwan Safdar is a PhD scholar of sociology at the Government College University Faisalabad. Sairah Zaidi is an election analyst based in Islamabad.


This was originally published in the September 2018 issue of the Herald. To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.