Pakistani women hit the campaign trail to get out the vote
Women, nongovernmental organizations, and a council of conservative Muslims are doing their best to avoid a repeat of the poor 2008 election showing among women.
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Sidra Ali works with SAPPK on the Aawaz Voice and Accountability program, which specializes in social mobilization in rural areas. She is going door-to-door in Charsadda, a village in the northwest of Pakistan, urging woman who have ID cards to make the trip to one of the estimated 18,000 women’s polling stations on May 11.Skip to next paragraph
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“Women do not vote here,” says Ms. Ali. The unwritten tribal code of ethics that many indigenous Pashtun people follow, called Pashtunwali, shapes the way many men think and act in villages across KP, the terrorism-hit province bordering with the restive tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. “The men do not allow the women to step out of the house,” she says. “They treat the women here like livestock.”
But activists like Ali say it doesn't have to be that way. Free and Fair Election Network estimated that only 15 percent of registered female voters actually turned up to vote in KP, if the rest of the women had shown up, they have the potential to influence election results considerably.
She recognizes that it’s an uphill battle without getting the village men on board. “We are trying to convince the men here, but it’s tough.”
Tribal culture, lack of education, and increasingly strict interpretations of Islam have kept women out of public life in rural areas, says Shabbir Akbar, who has been working at an nongovernmental organization based in Charsadda for the past decade in KP Province.
In an effort to address that the Pakistan Ulema Council, a group of conservative clerics, attempted to counter the perception that voting was un-Islamic. The council issued a fatwa, or religious decree, in April that declaring voting a "religious responsibility" for both male and female Pakistanis.
It’s illegal to keep women (or anyone) from voting in Pakistan, punishable crime, but for many of the men in this village, tradition trumps law.
“Our women do not go out and vote because it is disgraceful for them to go in public and mix with men,” says Nasrullah Khan, a local elder in his 80s. “I will not allow my wife or my daughters to vote,” he says, angry at the suggestion.
Mr. Akbar says that's prevailing view in this region.
“It has become a lifestyle now and the men justify it by saying it has been followed for centuries. They do not want to change because it helps the men dominate women and make them do what they want,” says Mr. Akbar.
But it's not just men who are a hard sell. Women have also expressed some hesitation about voting.
Ali is chatting with a young 20-something woman named Shehnaz. She discovers that the woman's mother let her go out to vote in the 2008 elections.
“Last time in our neighborhood when men saw some women, including me, going to vote, they got really angry and tried to scare us away by aerial firing,” says the unmarried oldest daughter of a single-parent. That experience scared her and in the end, she wasn't able to cast a vote. She seems doubtful about it this time. “Why should I risk my life to vote?” she asks.