Women's votes figured in surprising Swat area returns

By Fazal Khaliq, written for UPI.com  |  June 3, 2013 at 10:26 AM
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SWAT VALLEY, Pakistan, May 18 (UPI Next) -- Dozens of women in Swat Valley's Peochar, a former militant stronghold, cast ballots in Pakistan's May elections, voting with other constituents against Islamist candidates. The returns, which heavily favored secular parties, surprised many Pakistanis, who remember the fighters' invasion in the autumn of 2008.

Peochar voters overwhelmingly chose the reformist Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf party led by cricket star Imran Khan over religious parties. Activists and voters noted that without the Taliban monitoring or closing polling sites, as happened in 2008, voters could cast their ballots without fear.

A single polling station was set up in the valley, with separate voting areas for men and women.

"I was a bit nervous when I entered the polling station and saw so many women in a queue but after a little time I got OK," said Zarina Bibi, 37, who voted for the first time. She told UPI Next the ballot was confusing at first, but she voted easily.

PTI won 246 votes in Peochar Valley, ahead of the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz, with 151, and the Pakistan Peoples Party's 107. The PML-N won the election nationally.

"This is really a landmark as the area was considered as strictly religious," Ibrahim Khan, a political activist in nearby Matta, told UPI Next. "It means that people want change in true sense, therefore they rejected the old and traditional political powers."

Peochar's 8,000 people are mostly farmers and laborers. The rugged valley has few basic facilities and literacy is less than 2 percent. When the Taliban invaded in 2008 they confined women to their homes and forbade them from attending school. Although women were registered to vote, none dared.

"We can say this is really a better change that women in rural areas came out for votes and I am hopeful that the ration will double in the next polling." Tabbassum Bashir, a women's rights activist in the regional capital, Mingora, told UPI Next.

Sardar Ali, a social activist in Peochar village told UPI Next that women in the valley voted without fear.

Change was not entirely welcome in the valley, however, particularly among deeply conservative and older residents.

"What was wrong when our women did not cast votes?" asked Wali Zar Khan, a village elder.

"In my view, a female has nothing to do with casting votes because they are responsible for the activities inside the home and have nothing to do with anything outside the premises of their homes. Women in our part of the world have no education and are not politically aware so they do not have their own choice in casting votes. If they cast votes they would cast it according to their males' choice," Khan told UPI Next.

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