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enter image description hereThe gender divide is systematic in Pakistan’s electoral system. Not only that women were barred from voting or contesting in parts of Pakistan, they were not even registered as voters in many other parts. In fact, Pakistan counted 11 million fewer women registered voters than men in the recent elections.

The statistics provided by Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) paint a gloomy picture of the gender divide, which is more pronounced in some parts of Pakistan. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), only one in three voters was a woman. The highest share of women voters was observed for Islamabad and the Federal Territories where women represented 46 per cent of all voters.

Source: Computations by the author. Data provided by the Election Commission of Pakistan.
Source: Computations by the author. Data provided by the Election Commission of Pakistan.

Pakistan’s electoral system allows for reserved seats for women to address the gender bias in electoral outcomes. While the motivation behind the move for reserved seats is commendable, the outcome hardly meets the intent. In fact, the reserved seats have rested more power in the hands of a handful of men who appoint their favourite women to the legislature. It would have helped if the women alone elected the women candidates for the reserved seats instead of the richest and the most influential half a dozen Pakistani men.

In some parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where the share of women registered voters was already the lowest in Pakistan, political parties agreed not to allow women to vote in the elections. This is one of those odd moments of consensus in Pakistan where consensus on political matters is not only rare, but almost non-existent.

The Associated Press recently reported that in the 2008 elections, 564 polling districts recorded zero votes cast by women. This was partly a result of an understanding reached between political parties to deny women the right to vote. Similar agreements were revealed in the 2013 elections where candidates in Upper and Lower Dir, to name a few, agreed to bar women from voting in the provincial assembly elections.

Why Islamists oppose women enfranchise?

While Islamic injunctions may not prevent women from participating in the political process, Islamists certainly do. There is an obvious correlation between the degree of religiosity at a place and the women’s ability to vote in Pakistan. For instance, the religious dogma is most prevalent in FATA, Khyber Pakthunkhwa, and Balochistan. These are also the places where women voting rights are the least prevalent. In Dir, where political parties agreed to prevent women from voting, Jamaat-i-Islami’s candidates have regularly emerged victorious. Other political parties that flaunt religion to forward their political cause have also used religion or tradition to disenfranchise women.

Jamaat-i-Islami and other similar religo-political outfits take their cues from Saudi Arabia where women’s political rights are almost non-existent. The right to rule and lead is reserved exclusively for the male offspring in the Royal family. Women, in fact, are forbidden even from driving. The religiously-oriented political parties in Pakistan have not explicitly stated their misogynist ideals in their manifestos. However, since their inspiration comes from Saudi Arabia, and given an opportunity they routinely deny women the right to vote, it takes not much imagination to visualise the kind of regressive future religious parties envision for Pakistan.

In the neighbouring Iran the situation is not much better. Iranian mullahs in the Guardian Council have concluded that while a woman can be the mother, wife, and sister of a President, she however cannot be the president. The mullahs have thus denied the right to contest the presidential elections to 30-odd women who wanted to participate in the elections scheduled for mid-June. The mullahs believe that the Iranian constitution allows only men (reejal) to hold the President’s office.

Are seculars any better in Pakistan?

It is true to a large extent that secular parties in Pakistan (whose political ideology is not necessarily defined by religious doctrines) do not oppose women from participating in the electoral process, they however seldom act to enfranchise the disadvantaged lot. Consider Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) who had the opportunity to nominate two women to the National Assembly against the reserved seats for women in Punjab. PTI’s choices, however, appear to favour the privileged. One of the PTI’s nominee is a resident of Islamabad’s elitist sector, E-7, and the other is the Lahore-based president of PTI’s women wing.

While the Mullahs in Dir restricted women’s participation in the elections altogether, the supposedly enlightened ones did not fare much better as they rewarded power, fame, and wealth instead of promoting women from the struggling classes in Pakistan.

Author Image

Murtaza Haider is a Toronto-based academic and the director of

He tweets @regionomics

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (8) Closed

Abdul May 30, 2013 12:16am

Nothing else can be expected from religio-political philosophy with inbuilt discrimination of women. One thing you pakis have to learn and fast is that freedom can not be partial i.e only for the men of a certain sect of muslims. It has to be for all without bar else it is of no use cribbing about non participation of women in elections or whatever.

Ashok R. Prabhu May 30, 2013 07:56am

Women are equal partners in our march towards progress.By keeping 50per cent of our population indoors,we are in fact,restricting our progress.There are many jobs that women can do better than men over and above raising of children.Nurses,doctors,teachers are some examples.By giving dignity to our women,we are in fact dignifying ourselves as a Nation.

Arjumand May 30, 2013 09:40am

Abdul, the word " Pakis" is a derogatory term that was used by the british in the seventies to refer to people from the Indian subcontinent. We are not Pakis. We are Pakistanis and proud of it. We are a nation of unimaginable strenghts and yes, many weaknesses. How can we overcome those weaknesses until we acknowledge them, talk about them "crib" about them? Our problems, hence our efforts and, therefore,our solutions. We have come along way and we will eventually get to where we are headed. We are not a slur. We are a nation of strong minded and well meaning individuals and unfortunately some misguided ones. We are not perfect. Name a nation that is. But we are begining to try and that is what is important.

pathanoo May 30, 2013 09:58am

There is no true democracy till ALL women are free to vote and contest elections.

k.khan May 30, 2013 11:22am

Its look funny to me there is alot of problem in the world but everybody pok his finger in our pakistan internal matter we never bother what other contry and their habitants are doing what is their tradition they are good or bad but they finger why pakistani women did not cast their vote if we observe honestly in the west now a days they are playing with the women like a comodity in the name of model. in the name actress , in the name of fame in the name of fitness in the name of freedom and so on but we never finger them it is called personnel freedom dont disturb others

Sanjay May 30, 2013 02:43pm

"You pakis"

You lose credibility and respect when you use that in your post. Why waste you time and look wrong?

By the way, India, where I assume you come from, does not have much better record on gender equality... so your superiority is misplaced

Sam May 30, 2013 08:17pm

When any conversation on women's fundamental rights starts with "1500 years ago, Islam gave women the most rights ever...", it is a debate where the ground has already been conceded to misogynists. The irony is that Pakistan had an exceptionally profound, homegrown champion of gender equality in its Founder, the Quaid-e-Azam. Yet, is has chosen to ignore Mr Jinnah's wisdom for the ignorance of desert superstitions.

Awab Alvi May 30, 2013 11:04pm

You quote Imran Khan's nomination of 2 women candidates - did you bother filtering through PML-N's list - it includes all their family members