In an unusual move, a jirga in the Tangir valley has deferred a decision as to whether to bar women from voting in the legislative assembly elections in Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B). This comes after the furore that followed in the wake of a similar decision in Darel valley, and may be the precursor to wider changes in the power and influence of tribal jirgas that adjudicate on a range of matters, and not only electoral. Protests against the decision by a PML-N representative to the chief election commissioner made it clear that such a decision was unconstitutional. Given that the constitutional position of the entire G-B region is constitutionally ambiguous anyway, it is unlikely that any decision by a jirga can be legally and constitutionally binding.
The political parties across the spectrum have, in the past, been burned by jirga decisions regarding women and voting, and are tending to play more to the women’s suffrage camp than in the past. Representatives of the PML-N and the PPP have both said they will resist any attempt to limit the right of women to vote, and it now remains to be seen whether the traditional power of the jirgas really is being challenged; or whether we are seeing a display of political theatricals and a retouching of cosmetics — by the men. The real power may lie with the G-B election commission that has said that if decisions go against women in terms of voting, the commission will issue show-cause notices, and candidates face being disqualified if they do not support the women vote. Taken nationally women are about half of the electorate and almost everywhere there is a battle to get them into the polling booth, not only in G-B. Local administrations have moved to provide culturally acceptable solutions to the problems of getting women to vote, like women-only polling booths. The right of women to vote should not be impaired or imperilled by a group of men bent on holding back the tides of history. Women have a right to vote wherever they live in Pakistan, a right we strongly uphold no matter the cultural diktats.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 6th, 2015.
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