Women in Pakistan have mustered up the courage to defy cultural and social stigma and instead make a statement. For the first time in 40 years, women voted in Pakistan’s general election.
A day after women went to the polls, Prime Minister-elect Imran Khan said he would fight for those in Pakistan without a voice.
“My policies will be geared towards minorities, women, all the oppressed. My entire efforts will be to raise the rights of the oppressed,” the PM-elect said in a televised speech.
According to the Human Rights Watch, while Pakistani women constitutionally have the right to vote, “millions…have been de facto barred from voting through agreements among political parties, local elders, and powerful figures, using outdated customs as an excuse.”
Unfortunately, many women do not even have it in their interests to vote.
“There is a lifestyle that is extremely centered in the private sphere, absolutely unengaged from the election or politics, that imposes different rituals or daily routines,” said newspaper columnist Rafia Zakaria.
Some Pakistani women even think it is sacrilegious for them to cast their vote.
“I know people in my neighborhood who I doubt would have voted, they don’t watch any TV besides religious TV, they’re constantly centered around events in the home. And there are people there, hardliners, who said, ‘don’t participate in the election, it’s haram (forbidden);’ it’s still hard for women to leave their home, those who aren’t from liberal or urban backgrounds,” Zakaria said.
Due to the de facto bar, the previous election in 2017 was annulled by the Elections of Commission of Pakistan. No women had participated in the election.
Pakistani officials have made attempts to end the societal stigma. In October, the country enacted the Elections Act, which required at least 10 percent of voters to be women in each constituency for elections to be valid.
Women in the northern part of the country, specifically in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, have struggled to make their voices heard. Despite that, during the recent election, they lined up outside polling locations to vote.
“I had been deprived from casting a vote for the last three elections. This was the fourth consecutive election that came in my life when I exercised my basic right of casting my vote for the first time in my life. I am very relieved right now,” Farzana Bibi, a schoolteacher in the province’s Lowe Dir, told CNN.
Bibi not only expressed her freedoms by voting herself, but by helping others vote. She acted as a polling officer at her local polling station.
“I didn’t only exercise my right to vote but also [ensured] the maximum turnout at the polling station. Out of 856 [registered] women voters, 739 votes were cast – which was a big achievement,” Bibi said.
But these numbers still do not compare to those of registered men voters. Approximately 12M more men than women registered to vote in September 2017. To be eligible to vote, individuals must have a Computerized National Identification Card (CNIC). The Human Rights Watch states that it could be difficult for women to obtain a CNIC because of restrictions on mobility and education.
While many see this as a landmark moment for women, some are placing the blame on women regarding their lack of right to vote.
“We have lots of fights in this village and most of the time the root cause is women. So people are scared of allowing women to vote but now the situation is changing,” cleric Qazi Hafeez Ali told the BBC.
Women still stood strong, adamant that voting is an integral facet of their Pakistani identity.
“It seemed a lot of [women] voted and that I think is hopeful. I think that it’s connected to urbanization, connected to the fact that democracy is what people are coming to expect,” Zakaria said.
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