ISLAMABAD: Next month's elections should mark the first democratic transition of power in Pakistan, but Taliban threats, social taboos and poor organisation will likely deprive millions of women their right to vote.
Out of a population of 180 million, 37 million women and 48 million men are registered to vote in the May 11 polls in a country that has been ruled by generals for half its life and where military coups have repeatedly interrupted democracy.
But in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, adjoining tribal areas on the Afghan border and Balochistan, few women voted at the last election and officials fear it will be the same again.
"We waited the whole day... but not a single woman turned up because of a ban imposed by tribal elders," remembers Badama Begum, a 33-year-old teacher who worked at a polling station in 2008 in Mardan.
Election authorities set up a separate station staffed only by women to guarantee around 350 registered female voters complete privacy, but it was a waste of time.
"We closed the polling station in the evening, returned the blank ballot papers and empty boxes to the election commission, and left," she said.
In 2008, not a single vote was cast at 564 of 28,800 women's polling stations - 55 percent of them in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, officials said. In the most conservative areas, officials estimated women's turnout at 10-15 percent of those registered.
That year, 76 women ran for parliament and 16 won seats. The election commission says there are more women candidates this time, but had no precise number.
Registering to vote is a routine process conducted by officials who go door-to-door to compile a list of adults with ID cards in each household
But this in itself leaves millions of women disenfranchised.
Women's rights activist Farzana Bari estimates that at least 11 million eligible women will not be able to vote simply because authorities have not granted them national identity cards.
The elections themselves present further barriers to women, with some religious leaders believing women voting is un-Islamic.
Voting for a man they do not know, some mullahs counselled in 2008, was grounds for automatic divorce - a social taboo few are prepared to entertain.
"Our society does not allow us to bring our women to vote," said Sharif Khan, 50, a solar energy dealer in Miranshah, the main town in the tribal district of North Waziristan.
"We are afraid of the Taliban. They oppose women voting, so why should we take the risk?" he asked.
In tribal communities such as these, women live in purdah, confined to women's only quarters at home. They do not go shopping, they do not work outside the house and they only go to the hospital in a dire emergency.
Literacy rates are low, even lower for women. General disillusionment also runs high in some of the most remote and deprived parts of the country.
"Women in our area don't even know how to vote," said Miranshah cloth merchant Adam Khan, 35. "Our MPs do nothing for our welfare. So it's not just our women, I won't vote this time either," he fumed.
In urban areas, politicians lay on transport to ferry voters to and from polling stations, but in the countryside it becomes more complicated when women are not allowed to travel without a close male relative.
Aware of the problem, the election commission tried to introduce reforms that no candidate could win with less than 10 percent of the women's vote in his constituency, but it was rejected in parliament, said spokesman Khurshid Alam.
He says the commission will try to enforce legislation against those who try to stop women from voting, although it remains unclear how.
"Preventing a person from casting his vote falls in the purview of corrupt practices and is punishable by three years in jail and fine of Rs5,000 or both," Alam told AFP.
The result of a by-election in Batagram was declared null three years ago when few women participated having been threatened with divorce. They took part in the re-run at which the threat of divorce was not raised, he said.
Khalida Bibi a 39-year-old housewife from Dargai told AFP that she was hopeful that a tough election commission would have some impact.
"My name was on the voters' list for the 2002 and 2008 elections, but I couldn't vote because on both occasions local people decided that women would not," she said.
"I hope I will succeed this time because the election commission has warned against any ban on women voting," she added.
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In the earlier elections women were permitted to cast their votes. Benazir was PM of Pak. There are couple of Minister women in the the present Govt. All the Parties contesting election should come ahead and ensure safety and security of women and also be encouraged to cast their vote.. Pakistan is a democratic country and its every citizen has right to cast their votes.. All the Best.
Taliban, WHY YOU SO PAGAL?
@Deepwater: The details are fairly clear. Once Imran withdraws from the WoT, theTaliban wil suddnely stop blowing up girls school, killing polio workers, kidnapping and threatening people who sing or even listen to music or watch a movie, stop preventing women voting. It will all be peachy.
Within 90 days of winning the election, Imran Khan will have the Taliban eating out of his hand. They are not bad people, you see, they just want to be loved and acknowledged in a way only IK knows how. Thereafter, the women can go about their lives unhindered and music, culture, poetry will fill the air once again.
Don't sweat the details - just vote for IK. That's all you need to do.
People in tribal areas need to understand that not voting will bring more miseries for them.
We fully support the efforts of Pakistani security forces in countering the threat posed by the Taliban terrorists. As a free nation, the people of Pakistan have the full right to cast their votes for the candidate of their choice. We encourage the people of Pakistan to exercise their right to vote. These terrorists should not be able to emit fear and prevent the people of Pakistan from exercising their right. They would like to see the nation of Pakistan regress, and wish to keep the people in dark through intimidation and fear. We restate what Patrick Ventrell, Department of State Acting Deputy Spokesperson, said recently: “I would like to take the opportunity to condemn all violence targeting political candidates and leaders in Pakistan. It’s important that violence such as this not prevent the Pakistani people from achieving their aspirations for a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic nation. And we continue to look forward to timely, free, and fair elections with a peaceful transition of power. And as we note, this historic election marks the first civilian government to complete its term in Pakistan’s history, thus leading into elections to a new civilian government.”
We do not care if women or vote or not! We will clean sweep anyways! Vote for PTI! Vote for IK!
"Please i do not want my country to be another afghanistan."
'Too late to cry for it! Just look at the pre-poll rigging where liberal/ secular parties are being targeted for their stand against Talibanization. The dilemma is no other party condemning the terrorist either out of fear of Taliban or due to their policy of appeasement. Too late to cry for it!
And I thought Saudi's didn't give any right's to women, what is happening to these Muslim countries, we are going backwards more and more every day. It seems like as if these Talibans don't have anything else to do in there lives except to suppress women !!!!
Women should definately vote under all circumstances. Raze down these so called Talibans.
So according to your stats out of 180 million, 85 million are registered to vote. So the first paragraph is flawed.
According to the following report from 2010 http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/pakistanpakistanstatistics.html
Out of 173 million, 73 million are ineligible to vote only based on age as they are under 18. So I think 85 million out 107 million (180 - 73 if you're mathematically challeneged) is a far better number that are registered to vote.
Perhaps you need to better research (or get some one to proof read) your article before you actually publish them.
Gender equality seems to be miles away and as long as it remains so Pakistan Economy will remain a laggard.
sheer disappointment . i feel ashamed to be a Pakistani when i hear such violation of women rights . Where are our saviors ? Oh the so called saviors, their MEN, are the one stopping women from voting . Talibanisam is penetrating deep in pakistan . Please i do not want my country to be another afghanistan .
Taliban factor cannot be ignored in the election process.
They have influence, not only in the KP, FATA, etc. but also in the mega city of Karachi.