Situationer: LB polls to be litmus test for Dir's women

Published May 24, 2015
Lower Dir’s powerful men have a history of excluding women from the election process. — INP/file
Lower Dir’s powerful men have a history of excluding women from the election process. — INP/file

“IT’S a patriarchal society and everyone is very narrow-minded when it comes to women,” said Sara Afridi, a 22-year-old schoolteacher from Jandool, Lower Dir. “I wanted to vote in the by-election but was not allowed to.”

Lower Dir’s powerful men have a history of excluding women from the election process. In the 2013 general election they signed a deal not to allow women to vote. All political parties — religious and those that call themselves secular — were part of it. The deal was signed on May 10, 2013 and bore the signatures of Dr Nazir of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, Aizaz-ul-Mulk Afkari of the Jamaat-i-Islami, Haji Abdul Rahman Khan of Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam, Malik Rehman of Pakistan Peoples Party, Abdul Wahid of Awami National Party and Dr Deedar Mohammad of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz. According to the agreement, any party violating it would be fined Rs5 million.

Rights activists condemned the deal, but political parties did not take any action against their respective local leadership.

Read: Women’s absence in Dir by-poll provokes outcry

The by-election of PK-95 on May 7 was no different. “They had a similar agreement in this by-election,” said Shabeena Ayaz, the resident director of the Aurat Foundation in Peshawar. “But this time around the political parties were smarter. They had a verbal agreement, to avoid the ire of their central leadership, the media and civil society.”

Ms Ayaz said she interviewed women of PK-95 who told her that despite the threats, they dared to venture out only to find baton-wielding men around polling booths who told them to return home.

Not a single woman out of the 53,817 registered women voters cast her vote in the Lower Dir by-election. In this election without women, JI’s Aizaz-ul-Mulk Afkari won by a narrow margin with Haji Bahadur Khan of the ANP close behind.

“They did not cast vote of their own free will. We cannot force them to participate in the election process,” said Mr Afkari. The ANP runner-up is less bold in his claims: “Local leaders struck a deal to exclude women but I am a flag-bearer for women’s rights and was helpless.”

However, the Election Commission of Pakistan is not buying these arguments. It has withheld the formal notification of election results and taken suo motu action in this regard. An inquiry headed by the Chief Election Commissioner, retired Justice Sardar Raza Khan, is now under way, and various women’s rights activists have sent requests demanding that the election be declared null and void.

Furthermore, the Aurat Foundation conducted a fact-finding mission during which they found the verbal agreement was reached at the DCO’s office in Lower Dir between Mr Afkari and Haji Bahadur Khan in the presence of a district returning officer.

Moreover, only one polling station was assigned to women and no training was given to women presiding officers. Stationery required for the election was never delivered to women’s polling booths and announcements were made by local clerics a day before the election warning women that if they stepped out to vote, they would have to bear the ‘consequences’.

Khawar Mumtaz, chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women, one of the complainants in the PK-95 inquiry, criticised the duplicity of political parties. “On the one hand political parties mobilise women, invite them to jalsas, motivate them for street protests, avail the reserved seats and, on the other, selectively prevent women from participating in elections. There should be some principle; either they are against women’s political participation or for it. If they are against it, then they should follow through everywhere.”

The next hearing of the ECP will be on May 26, just four days before the local body elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, scheduled for May 30. Women’s rights activists fear that if the ECP does not come to a final decision on the PK-95 election, those discouraging women from voting will be emboldened and women will be excluded again from the electoral process during the LB polls.

The polling scheme for the local government elections has already been announced by the ECP. According to the scheme, there will be 355 polling stations, including 329 combined and 13 each for men and women in Lower Dir. But it is apparently the combined polling stations with men that keep women away.

Shad Begum, a women’s rights activist from Lower Dir and one of the complainants in the PK-95 inquiry, says that if the ECP was committed to encouraging women to participate in the elections, then it should arrange for separate polling stations for women.

Also read: Ban on women voters: Fresh elections demanded in 8 KP districts

“I am eager to vote in the upcoming local bodies elections but only if there are combined polling booths. Otherwise the conservative men of Jandool, Lower Dir, will never allow us to vote,” said schoolteacher Ms Afridi.

Published in Dawn, May 24th, 2015

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