Women leaving their homes and making independent political choices is a brazen violation of the most precious of the patriarchal assets, the honor. It is a collective heritage and thus, its protection is a joint responsibility. No surprise then, that all the contesting candidates and the political parties, including religious, liberal and secular, collude to impose a bar on women from participating in the elections. Its latest episode has just concluded. The responses are a point scoring game if not a debating competition.
The ban on women voters makes a catchy news story which is good, but there is certainly more to the depoliticisation of women in Pakistan than just this.
Consider these facts.
FACT 1: The male-female ratio in voter lists shows an increasingly negative trend since 2002 in all provinces and areas. See table. If the numbers are compared with those of the first general election held in 1970, Punjab, which is more than half of the electorate, depicts a decline of 8 percentage points.
Number of female registered voters as percentage of male voters:
FACT 2: Rest assured that the relatively better performance by the provinces other than Punjab does not represent any improvement in the political lives of women there. This might only be because 2002 copied voters from the 1998 population census forms, instead of a voluntary house to house registration process and in 2013 the identity card database was rearranged to generate voter lists.
More importantly, many ingenious political players have of late discovered that higher number of registered female voters combined with the 'tradition' of low female turnout is actually a gold mine of sorts. All you need to do is to secure from 'the relevant authorities' an appropriate license to rig it. Field experiences of most observers suggest that it is the easiest to commit electoral frauds at the female polling stations. This has for many served as an incentive to raise the female tallies and some enthusiastic supporters of women's political rights forgot where to stop. For example, in the Kech district of Balochistan there were 120 female voters for every 100 male in 2008 while in population they were just 91. In nine other districts of the province, the female ratio in voters exceeded that in population.
FACT 3: The above facts relate to voter lists alone, but how many women actually exercise their right can only be found in turnout figures. Sadly, a gender break up of the turnout is not available for any elections. In each constituency there are three types of polling stations, male, female and combined. The polling booths, and thus the ballot boxes, in the combined polling stations are separate. The routine practice for counting votes is that the head of the polling station empties all boxes in one pile before starting the counting process. The result of the combined polling station thus cannot offer a gender break up.
Women rights organisations have been demanding the Election Commission to make it possible and finally it had agreed to do so in the 2013 elections. The Commission thus had amended the polling station result tabulation form but either the polling staff failed to follow the instructions or the self-righteous Returning Officers refused to take any pains. In the end, we still do not have any statistics about how many women cast their vote. This itself, makes evident the importance that the authorities attach to this issue.
Despite this dearth of gender data, a glimpse of what the situation can be worked out from the polling station-wise results that the Commission had made available for the first time in 2008. Similar data for 2013 elections is as not yet available.
There were 560 female polling stations in the 2008 general elections, where not even a single woman could cast the ballot. Most of these stations were in Pakhtunkhwa. In other areas, though women weren't barred, their participation had been dismally low. Consider for example, the Faisalabad district where 11 national assembly constituencies cover both, a sizeable urban and rural population of the Punjab. The following table shows that the turnout at over one thousand female polling stations was 15 per cent point less than that of male polling stations. Looking at the same numbers from another angle: If a 100 voters cast their votes at male polling stations, 57 women did so at female polling stations.
Women being actively barred from voting is just one act of its kind. It is the proverbial tip of the iceberg, the main mass of which, hidden beneath the surface, comprises of the chilling realities of how women in Pakistan are excluded from politics.
Democracy in Pakistan should now move beyond the notions of free and fair electoral procedures and shift focus on to inclusion and mobilisation of marginalised sections, biggest among those being the women. Otherwise, this iceberg has the capacity to sink the Titanic of democracy.
Tahir Mehdi works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group that has a primary interest in understanding governance and democracy. He tweets @TahirMehdiZ.
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