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.

Zohra Bensemra/Reuters
Women eat at a new Shopping mall in Islamabad, Pakistan, in April.

The last time Pakistanis went to the polls, few women from the rural conservative areas of Pakistan cast a vote. And as the country marks its first-ever civilian to civilian transition of power this month, officials worry it will happen again.

While many women in urban areas actively engage in civil and political society, in rural areas of Pakistan it’s a different story: Tribal tradition shapes the way the patriarchal society works, keeping women in this region largely out of public life. 

Local woman’s rights activists are working to inform women about their right to vote, in the hopes of challenging the paradigm here.

“Although the political culture in the [rural parts of the] country is not [accommodating] of women, there is more attention being paid to women issues. We are seeing a difference because women are raising their voice against this injustice,” says Farida Shahid, executive director at Shirkat Gaah, a prominent women rights organization in Pakistan.

There is much to do: Only 37 million women registered to vote, compared with 49 million registered male voters. This year some 11 million voter-age women, mostly in Pakistan’s conservative rural areas, do not even have the national identity cards required to register to vote, according to the Pakistani independent polls watchdog Free and Fair Election Network. 

In 2008, out of the 28,800 special polling stations set up for them, women did not cast a single vote at 564 polling stations – the majority of which were in conservative northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Province. Though that could be because men did not permit women to vote alone, only 38 percent of registered women voters cast ballots, compared with 50 percent of male voters, according to the watchdog group.

Door to door 

There are a dozens of organizations, including the Election Commission of Pakistan, working to inform women about their right to vote, encourage them to sign up for national ID cards, and educate men and women about women's rights and their equal status in society, including South Asia Partnership Pakistan (SAPPK). 

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.

“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.

Old habits

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.  

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