KOHISTAN: Former MNA Maulana Abdul Haleem – a man known for his chauvinism – has finally changed his mind, issuing a decree ‘allowing’ women of Kohistan to use their right to vote provided they are accompanied by a ‘mehrum’ – a male relative having blood relations with the woman in question.
The maulana is an extremely revered religious leader and known as the ‘teacher of teachers’ in his district. He first shot to prominence in 2005 when he issued a decree asking his electorate to grow poppy while serving as an MNA on a Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) ticket. He supported the cultivation of the banned crop in response to what he saw as the government’s apathy towards the district in the wake of a deadly earthquake.
Maulana Haleem occupied airtime and print media space again last year when he issued a decree against non-governmental organisations (NGOs), dubbing them ‘agents of Jews and the West’. Flanked by other clerics, Haleem had also demanded the NGO workers leave the district within 15 days.
The matter was later settled when the district administration intervened and asked the NGOs to restrict their activities to their offices and prevent women workers from visiting houses in project areas.
Kohistan, with its distinctive tribal culture, has a history of not allowing its women to cast their vote. A consensus to this effect is always taken at a jirga comprising contesting candidates ahead of every election.
In some areas, including Pattana and Dasu, villagers said male family members often exercise the right to vote on behalf of their women. A school teacher requesting anonymity said the women, this time too, are skeptical of using their right to vote in favour of a representative of their choice.
Interestingly, Maulana Abdul Haleem convened a jirga of local ulemas on Thursday asking them to allow Kohistani women to use their right to vote freely. “My wife and daughters-in-law will also cast their votes and I will accompany them to the polling station,” he told The Express Tribune.
While emphasising the importance of women exercising their right to vote, the maulana made it clear they have to strictly adhere to the norms of ‘parda’, the practice of wearing a veil. “They will not be allowed to visit a polling station alone. They are bound to be accompanied by their mehrum.”
In response to a question, Haleem said he never issued a decree against women voting, but in the past it was a unanimous decision taken by the candidates to follow the cultural norms of Kohistan. Asked if his decision came in response to government orders that made banning women from voting a punishable offence, Haleem said he was not aware of the decision and whatever he did was in light of the Shariah and Islam. Haleem’s son, Maulvi Kareem Dad, a former office bearer of the JUI-F, also expressed the same views while endorsing his father’s decree. Meanwhile, civil society organisations praised the maulana’s initiative.
Kohistan district has one National Assembly seat, NA-23, and three provincial assembly seats, PK-61, 62 and 63, with a total of 127,028 registered voters. Of these, only 54,847 are females.
The remote hilly area of Hazara division bordering Gilgit-Baltistan on the east and Malakand Agency on the west was given the status of a district in 1976. But despite being rich in natural resources like water, forests and minerals, it remains underdeveloped and ignored in terms of infrastructure and education.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 10th, 2013.