IF the scandalous exclusion of women from the recent polling in Lower Dir does not lead to enforcement of their right to vote, nothing else will, as this case clinches the argument for long-delayed reform.
Women were barred from exercising their right to vote in the by-election in PK-95 by verbal agreement among candidates including the main contenders belonging to Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) and the Awami National Party. The political bosses of the area thus maintained their record of forcibly denying their womenfolk their fundamental right to vote; a woman who had defied a similar ban in 2013 was ostracised.
Three factors have made this latest outrage against women especially unpardonable.
Unprecedented in our electoral history is the JI chief’s defence of women’s disenfranchisement.
First, the women-baiters have broken with their tradition of answering their critics with silence or dissimulation and have brazenly owned their act. Unprecedented in the country’s election history is Sirajul Haq’s defence of the anti-women, anti-democratic step. He justifies women’s enforced ouster from the electoral process by putting it on a par with some men’s failure to cast their ballots. Further, he argues that women have more important duties than participating in polling, such as cooking meals for the lords of patriarchy.
Such anti-democratic fulminations cannot be allowed to go without a rebuttal and one wonders whether the JI chief was conscious of undermining his party’s entitlement to participate in democratic politics, apart from inviting censure for condemning women to drudgery as cooks.
Secondly, the unholy alliance against women in Lower Dir tried to put the clock back by moving against the current for women’s enfranchisement. It is worth recalling that till 1996 women (and most of the males) in Fata did not have the right to vote. Within a month of the extension of adult franchise to the tribal area about 100,000 women were registered there as voters and a large number of them did vote in the 1996 election.
While the patriarchs of Lower Dir were passing their anti-women decree, a jirga in Gilgit-Baltistan was withdrawing its earlier ban and clearing the way for women’s participation in the coming election. And this while Britain was electing five Pakistan-origin women to the Commons. No further debate is required to find the Lower Dir political barons guilty of defying the spirit of the age.
Thirdly, the election authorities stand indicted for collusion with the obscurantists. They had come to know of the criminal deal for keeping women out of the electoral exercise but took no action to help the women voters or to call the offenders to account. Their complicity in the crime has been exposed by the Free and Fair Election Network.
It is said that only one female polling station was set up in the entire constituency, though there were 83 polling booths for women within the male polling stations. This is perhaps due to deference to the Pakhtun tradition of not allowing women to move around without male escorts. Yet polling stations meant exclusively for women are normally set up throughout the KP province.
In PK-95, women were apparently denied their right to freedom of movement too. Since Pakhtun women travel by air and by luxury coaches unaccompanied by men, the official role in restricting rural women’s movement amounts to an unacceptable discrimination.
More damaging is the allegation that no polling material was distributed among the staff at women’s polling booths. This confirms the election officials’ compliance with the unlawful fiat and its acceptance as a legitimate order from a superior authority. A more insidious subversion of the law cannot be imagined. Now the Election Commission is asking the candidates to comment on media reports of women’s enforced non-participation in the polls, whereas its first move should have been to pull up the election staff.
That women are blatantly denied access to polling booths despite years of campaigning in support of their right is perhaps due to lack of an appropriate legal mechanism.
There are two sections in the Pakistan Penal Code that can be invoked to punish interference with women’s right to vote. Section 171-C-(1) describes any interference with the free exercise of any electoral right as an “offence of undue influence at an election”. Under Section 171-J, the offence of inducing or instigating anyone to boycott an election is punishable with a jail term of up to three years.
These provisions provide for punishing individual offenders but cannot be used to nullify an election, a Peshawar High Court decision notwithstanding. The grounds on which an election can be declared void by an election tribunal do not include preventing women from voting.
Before the 2013 general election, the possibility of providing for cancellation of an election on the ground of enforced disenfranchisement of women was debated at length. Such cancellation was sought in any constituency where ballots cast by women were less than 20pc or 10pc of their registered votes, but no legislation was possible.
It is therefore necessary to explicitly criminalise prevention of women from casting votes. The offence must be added to the grounds on which the ECP or an election tribunal could declare an election void. Further, any political organisation that becomes a party to women’s disenfranchisement should lose the privilege to join the electoral process.
It might be argued that participation in an election must be voluntary. This only means that everybody is free to boycott polls on the ground of conscientious rejection of democracy but this does not, and cannot, amount to giving anyone a right to stop others from voting. Obedience to the law is not optional.
All this does not alter the fact that women’s political rights cannot be secured by law alone. They will go on suffering discrimination till gender equality is accepted by society. Considering the state’s current tendency to appease the orthodoxy, a hard struggle lies ahead for Pakistan’s women.
Published in Dawn, May 14th, 2015