Dearth of women voters in northwestern Pakistan region linked to tradition

By Ihsan Qadir   |   Oct. 11, 2013 at 1:10 PM  |  Updated Oct. 22, 2013 at 2:27 PM   |   0 comments

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LAHORE, Pakistan, Oct 15 (UPI Next) -- Tribal culture and long-standing traditions, not any sort of government or religious decree, prevented women from voting in parts of Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province during the August by-elections, a variety of local sources have told UPI Next.

A government inquiry found that women were not barred from polling stations.

Local television stations reported, however, that women were barred from voting during the polls in Nowshera and Lakki Marwat National Assembly constituencies because of a ban imposed by candidates or an understanding between candidates and tribal elders that women would not be allowed to cast ballots because of social or cultural norms. Peshawar High Court Chief Justice Dost Muhammad Khan then ordered the Election Commission of Pakistan to withhold results from the constituencies, calling a bar on women voting a violation of human rights, Pakistan's Constitution and Pakistani law.

In a first for Pakistan, the Election Commission formed a committee to look into the ratio of women voting in the two constituencies and to mete out punishment if women had been barred from voting. The panel found Sept. 10 that "no woman in these constituencies was obstructed by anyone from casting their votes during the Aug. 22 by-elections," commission spokesman Khurshid Alam said.

Those interviewed by UPI Next bear out the contention that women in the northwest Pakistan region, where the population is largely conservative in practicing Islam, were not barred from polling places, but did not vote for reasons related to local traditions.

Muhammad Shoaib, a Nowshera tribal elder, attributed the absence of women voters to tradition, denying that the tribe stopped women from voting.

He said women had never cast votes before, not even for female candidates. Men voted for female candidates in such cases, Shoaib said.

Abdul Ghaffar, 42, a tribal elder in Lakki Marwat, told UPI Next: "We did not bar women from casting votes. We used to make announcements on loudspeakers of mosques and ask women to cast votes, but they did not come. Social taboos did not allow women to cast votes. Political parties, media and Parliament should play their due role for ensuring participation of women."

Women interviewed by UPI Next struck a similar chord.

Khadija Bibi, 65, of Babu village in Nowshera told UPI Next she did not vote of her own free will. "No one ever stopped me from casting a vote, but I do not like such activity," she said.

"We have to do our domestic work," said Mehtab Bibi, 45, of Jibba village of Nowshera. She said she knew of candidates who had become ministers after elections but said she thought men were better suited for such positions and, "No one barred me from casting a vote."

Fazila Bibi, 57, of Parakhel village in Lakki Marwat said, like her mother, she had never cast a vote in her life.

"Our parents have told us this activity does not suit women. So I never thought of casting a vote. Even thinking of casting votes makes me feel shy and guilty," she explained.

Qamar Begum, 38, of the same constituency told UPI Next,: "I wanted to cast a vote. But my father's attitude was so hard in this context that I buried the thought and did not share with anyone in my family."

In a telephone interview with UPI Next, Imran Khatak, a Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf candidate for Nowshera, denied having reached an agreement with tribal elders to bar women from voting.

He said women's absence from elections is deeply rooted in tribal history, and pointed out there was no women's participation in previous elections in May and in 2008.

Mehdi Hassan, a journalism professor at Beaconhouse National University who follows voting in the area, said Khyber Pakhtunkhwa women have not participated in elections since Pakistan's creation in 1947.

"It was the first time, in the May 2013 elections, that women from urban areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa participated in elections. But women of rural areas did not,” Hassan said. “The same was repeated in by-polls, but fortunately this time the issue got attention of media and was highlighted."

Alam said the commission did not maintain separate data on male and female voting during previous elections as there was a manual system in place. In the May general elections and last month's by-elections, the commission tried to introduce software for maintaining separate data on male and female voting by gender, but there were problems.

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