PESHAWAR, Pakistan (News Lens Pakistan) -- Pakistani women in the country's conservative Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province turned out in larger numbers than ever for recent local government elections, the country's main electoral observer network reported.
The rugged western frontier province, which neighbors Afghanistan, held its biggest local elections ever May 30, to select about 40,000 representatives for district, subdistrict and village councils. It was the province's first local elections in a decade.
Independent observers who were deployed in over 3,000 of the 11,221 polling stations said that, anecdotally and based on direct observation, the level of women's participation was considerably higher than in previous elections.
The last elections held in the province were the 2013 contests for national and provincial parliaments. Female voter turnout was just 36 percent of the total 5,167,624 votes cast, according to the independent poll observer group Free and Fair Elections Network.
The Election Commission of Pakistan has yet to compile and release exact voter figures for the May 30 local elections. The process takes up to two months after polling day.
Women's participation was being closely watched by election monitors following reports that women were barred from voting in a constituency known as PK-95 in the district of Lower Dir in May 7 by-polls.
The by-polls were held after the leader of the Jamat Islami religious party, Siraj ul-Haq, vacated the Lower Dir seat following his election to the Senate of the provincial assembly.
Tahira Begum, 40, voted May 30 for the first time in her life.
"The men in my family, especially my husband, allowed me to vote. My husband was especially supportive of me voting when he saw the wide criticism over the situation in PK-95, where women were barred from voting," she told News Lens Pakistan by phone.
She said her husband was disappointed at the lack of training for new voters in how to cast ballots.
"I was casting my vote for the first time. I not aware of the entire electoral process," Begum told News Lens. "There is need for proper instruction for those who are new to the electoral exercise."
Of the 53,000 female voters registered for the by-polls in PK-95 constituency on May 7, not a single vote was cast. Women were reportedly barred from voting by a tribal jirga, or council.
The commission voided the results and ordered fresh by-polls in that constituency. But the Peshawar High Court overturned the commission's nullification of results there.
Elsewhere in the province, women were buoyed by the widespread criticism of the disenfranchisement of women in PK-95, and by support from the commission and political parties such as the Awami National Party and the province's ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice) Party.
Political parties reportedly rejected the traditional barriers in rural areas that kept women from casting their votes.
"In a single polling station of Timergara ward of Lower Dir, 143 out of 391 registered women voters cast their votes," Salma Begum, an assistant presiding officer in the polling station, told News Lens.
Shahid Fiaz, chief executive of the Free and Fair Election Network, said female participation in local elections had improved considerably this year.
"Obstacles to women's voting were, nevertheless, prevalent in several areas," Fiaz told News Lens. "Incidents of systemic and traditional barriers to women voting were reported by observers in 80 out of 462 wards. Incidents of women being stopped from voting were observed in at least one polling station in 17 wards."
The group's findings state that in the other 63 wards where it stationed observers, women were disenfranchised -- not barred, or blocked by an individual -- in at least one polling station due to systematic or institutional issues, such as the absence of female polling staff, the presence of male staff at female polling stations in areas were segregation of genders is strictly observed, the absence of female polling booths or shared entrances for men and women.
Khushal Zada, the commission's deputy director for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, said he wants the government to enact a law allowing the commission to nullify results from polling stations where women never vote.
"Laws need to be formulated to declare polling null and void in constituencies where women never exercise their right to vote," Zada told News Lens by phone.
Jehan Dastagir, a lawyer who has observed previous elections, including last month's ballot at polling stations in Lower Dir, said he had never before witnessed women casting ballots in Timergara ward.
"Women voters at the polling station of Timergara ward? It was both surprising and reassuring to see women turn up to vote at a station where they could not go before," Dastagir said.
Women's rights advocates were satisfied about the participation of women in the local government polls.
They cautioned, however, that there is a long way to go before women are fully enfranchised.
Shabeena Ayaz, the director of Aurat Foundation, a women's rights organization, praised the commission for standing up for women's right to vote.
"The ECP has set a good precedent. They are using an iron hand to deal with those who are disenfranchising women in the elections," Ayaz said.
After the election, local women from Munjai Tehsil of Timergara ward protested the disenfranchisement of women in their area.
"The ECP should nullify the results of the elections in our constituency, as women were barred from casting votes by male voters," one of the women protesters told reporters. She did not give her name out of fear of repercussions from her family.
In another protest, six women in Khal village of Lower Dir district held a news conference to allege that women were barred from voting in the local government polls. They, too, demanded that elections be declared null and void in their constituency.
"There is still more work to be done by civil society organizations and government to ensure women can cast votes," Ayaz said.
She also criticized political parties in Pakistan for not giving women candidates a chance to run for general seats, and only putting them forward for election to seats reserved specifically for women.
"Political parties should promote women candidates. If one woman gets elected to parliament on a general seat, then tomorrow her sister, mother and other women of her region will be inspired and will definitely take part in the electoral process," Ayaz said.