Transforming women into equal citizens

Published: January 27, 2013

The writer is a journalist based between Karachi and London. She was formerly a staff writer at the New Statesman

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.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 28th, 2013.

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Reader Comments (19)

  • Shaami
    Jan 27, 2013 - 9:59PM

    Well next time do mention about Amrita Pritam while mentioning prominenet women. Amrita is a celebrated woman Poet in Punjab. In Punjabi rural regions and including the region from where i belong Amrita Pritam’s poetry have played a very good role in older women to understand what their rights are as i do remember that my granny used to read her writings and she was a village lady but she was more aware of her rights than many of the women in cities.

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  • Parvez
    Jan 27, 2013 - 11:26PM

    They have a long hard fight ahead of them if they are to achieve the status you suggest. It will not be given to them, they will have to take it, but then that has been the case in even the developed world.

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  • KH
    Jan 28, 2013 - 8:48AM

    Why women of east are so desireable to becoming like the west where they are treated equal, but dont see what has happened to them after becoming equal.

    Are they more happy or more depressed, how many females in the west smoke.

    In my opinion what women should ask for is treatment with respect and as ISLAM says treat them like precious jewels. Equality will not solve their problem.

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  • Hashim Awan
    Jan 28, 2013 - 10:57AM

    @KH i dont know from where you are coming. I dont see any equality in Pakistan. Any working class woman in Pakistan is despised and looked down upon. I worked in Pakistan and i realized that almost all of the male colleagues discuss the physical attributes of their colleagues in a sleazy manner during breaks and i am talking about a big multinational. So just imagine what it would be of a smaller illiterate organization. Moreover you mentioned smoking and i could understand that urbanites of Pakistan think of smoking as the moral indicator of anything but just visit any village of Punjab and Hukka and Chillum is a part of daily life and my grandmother and my mother who are pure dihatis of Notth Punjab smoke Huqqa on a daily basis and smoking is not considered a bad thing in pure Punjabi villages and neither it is a moral indicator of anything rather it is pure cultural in some regions just like in my village of SehgalAbad Chakwal. .Recommend

  • KarachiBaby
    Jan 28, 2013 - 11:10AM

    “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”.
    I dont agree with this idea anymore. Go and Visit any NADRA center and observe the long long ques. They face so many hardships for making their CNIC.

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  • Liberation
    Jan 28, 2013 - 11:17AM

    @KH : The idea of treating women as jewels and keeping them ‘safe’ by locking them up in homes is ridiculous. Women are not objects or diamonds. They are independent human beings who must have the chance to get absolute unconditional equality within homes and outside too. They must have equal rights and opportunities for employment, housing, income and inheritance. Treating women as objects ( jewels) is utterly shameful.
    Secondly, the idea that women should be kept in homes for their safety is bogus because 50-60% of violence against women is domestic in nature. More rapes are committed by men (uncles, cousins, fathers,etc) known to women than by strangers.

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  • Mirza
    Jan 28, 2013 - 11:18AM

    The long journey has not even begun yet. In a society where women have low status from birth to death it is not easy to achieve the parity. Women inherit half of men, all wives get a combined 1/8th of the household wealth, their testimony is half of that of a man and the list goes on and on. Many men hate the West only because they are democracies and therefore women and men have the same power. The fact is President Obama is elected on women’s votes who vote more than men in the US.

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  • Khan
    Jan 28, 2013 - 11:39AM

    The writer is not current on the situation about voter registeration and CNIC.Women are well aware of their rights and only those living in remote areas may not have been registered and that includes male voters too.They are certainly not a “voiceless and desfranchised” mass.

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  • Jan 28, 2013 - 2:02PM

    *I keep reading and listening from all sectarian Hindus and Muslims that Hinduism and Islam give highest respect and freedom to women. But when it comes to practice these so called true religious sects are the greatest tormentors of women and do every thing to keep them in shackles and exploit them *

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  • Pir Bulleh Shah
    Jan 28, 2013 - 3:14PM

    A ridiculous article. Women have all the powers they need in Pakistan and Islam. Muslim women are not exploited creatures like other women. Islam was the first to give women all equal rights and Quaid-e-Azam set an excellent example by giving his wife all rights.

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  • elementary
    Jan 28, 2013 - 7:33PM

    @KH:
    Women are equal human beings,stop treating them as objects wether it be “precious jewel” or a “sweet Lollipop”

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  • Hamad
    Jan 28, 2013 - 9:42PM

    @Pir Bulley Shah For your kind information Qauide Azam’s wife was a Non Muslim as she was a Zoroastrian ( Worshipper of the Fire). Also Quade Azam was a Ismaeili himself which according to most of the Muslims does not fit exactly in any conventional Islam.Recommend

  • Irfan haqparast wazir
    Jan 29, 2013 - 1:21AM

    women have equal rights as men have. Yes, our relgion and quaide azam, in favour of equal rights but we dont give them. We are treating them like servent. We smoke, dont practice pardah, get education in good colleges and universities, listen to music but when all these comes about women, we suppressed them under our wrong beliefs. Men never condemnd but we it comes about women, we start critisizing them. Why male dont pardah?

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  • BILL
    Jan 29, 2013 - 2:12AM

    @KH: Why are you scared of the idea of a woman who may be smarter then you?Recommend

  • Nobody
    Jan 29, 2013 - 5:24PM

    @Pir Bulleh Shah:
    Shutup. That’s the most intelligent retort I could think of in response to your silly comment I’m still hoping is a joke.

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  • Feb 3, 2013 - 4:46PM

    is western women really free? cheating, divorce so common there. women have financial responsibility as well as house responsibility. rape, harassment more common than smoking in US.

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  • Adnan
    Feb 4, 2013 - 3:27AM

    @Hamad: Incorrect. Get your facts straight. She had already embraced Islam

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  • Adnan
    Feb 4, 2013 - 3:30AM

    Asking to give equal rights to women, I wonder whether you will allow women to sit on Tanoor and make Naans or not given a separate compartment in buses?

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  • Feb 4, 2013 - 5:19PM

    @Ahmed: You have been totally brain washed by the sectarian propaganda. cheating, divorce is not so common there as it is here. Yes women have financial responsibility as well as house responsibility so what is wrong. They must live as an equal human being and take these responsibilities rather than living like a doll for providing luxuries to the men folk. Your idea that rape, harassment is more common than smoking in US is result of brain washing. Wake up.

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