LAHORE: After a hectic day of door-to-door campaigning, Rubina Shaheen finally gets some time to breathe but not for long as local elections are just around the corner.

Rubina is contesting for the chairperson slot on PTI’s ticket for UC 200 which encompasses parts of Gulberg. And though the city is already marked with posters and banners, these are mostly of men. Nowhere around the main roads is there even the printed name of any woman contesting election.

“I think I am doing quite well by visiting houses and neighbourhoods, not missing out any voter,” she says. “But there are challenges otherwise.” Bold and outspoken, she says she has had to face issues of male chauvinism during her campaigning as well as administrative problems “created by this government”.

“I have been collecting numbers of ID cards to ensure that voters have all been registered. To my surprise I have found that entire families who have been living here for generations have their names registered in places they have never been to,” she says, her voice cracking with strain. “For instance, a 65-year-old man who has always lived in Sharif Colony has been registered in the Cantonment Board. Someone else has been registered in Daroghawala. The latter says he has never even been there!” “This is a pre-poll rigging,” she says.

“Believe me, it is such a mess, that I have no idea how there will be complete voter turnout,” she adds. “And I think there will be low turnout in all the UCs because of this. To start correcting voters’ bases at this point in time feels like we are starting from scratch.”

To add to this a rival contestant has been spreading to voters that she should not be voted for because “women should not enter politics”. “He was a member of the Jamaat-i-Islami and now he is fighting as an independent and is trying to bring me down in a lowdown way. I found the local police too sharing meals with the members of that panel once and so I complained to the DSP about the police taking sides,” says Rubina.

“He says things like if there is a problem late at night a woman won’t be able to come and help. “Who will go to court, kutchehri,” she quotes him saying.

Aneesa Fatima Malik, who is a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, is also one of those contesting for vice chairperson in UC 210. She is on a party ticket but says as a woman fighting elections things have been difficult.

“Overnight I found that the banners I had put up had been taken off,” she says disappointingly. “This was so petty, it’s like a war out there. They just could not stand the fact that a woman was opposing them.” As a result Aneesa has had to resort to only corner meetings and door-to-door campaigning so that people may recognise her face later. “At least I can still distribute pamphlets,” she says.

Unfortunately, the PML-N has largely ignored its women. A party contestant for chairman in UC 211 says the women of his UC do not really want to join in politics. “I will only comment on my locality. The reality is that the women in PML-N do not really come out in rallies or campaigning as anyone may have noticed. PTI’s women have always joined in their campaigning. As a result perhaps our party’s leadership decided to let most women join us on their reserved seats in each UC.”

Despite this prevailing thought among many of the male contestants, UC residents especially women do not agree with it. “We would have liked a woman on the panel to vote for,” says one resident. “It is an insulting attitude to believe that women will not work and segregating them in elections on the basis of their gender.”

Other women too say the more women come forward, the better. “I know someone in another UC who is in the party and was hoping to be given a chance as she is an active member of society but she was completely overlooked and I can see how disappointed she is,” says Mrs Tahir. “It is quite unfair because most women I know try their best to reach a point, while the men are much more entitled after winning.”

In UC 154 (from Sukh Neher to Shalamar Bagh area) one such woman is definitely meant to be given a reserved seat if PML-N wins from the area. Shumaila Sohail says she has been recognised by the party because of her work and not the other way round. “The people in my area are not very educated or aware. I have always helped them file for CNICs in Nadra, for birth certificates, and other essential paperwork. I have arranged funds for weddings for families who could not afford, and for medical procedures,” she says. “However fighting the election is a huge issue for my extended family and they still do not like the idea of me putting my picture up in public. But fortunately my husband and in-laws have supported me, especially after the MNA and MPA of the locality came to convince them. Today I have been given a car and a security guard by the party for my campaigning and people are saying to me that they will support me for all the work that I have done.”

Civil society has repeatedly voiced concern at the principle of ‘indirect voting’ that has been brought on once again in the current regime. Ironically, it is the most marginalised groups that are to be brought on through ‘selection’, including youth, women, minorities, and workers.

Homenet Pakistan’s Executive Director Umme Laila Azhar says they complained to the ECP not just about this but also another serious issue. “We complained about the symbols being given to the independent women candidates,” she says, adding they included stereotypical household items such as a bed, bangle, baby cot, dressing table, basket, earthen pot, rolling pin, pressure cooker, comb, ‘chimta’, wheelbarrow, toothbrush, iron, drum (dhol), oil stove and other similar ones. “Subliminally these symbols are saying to the voter that the woman belongs at home.”

Published in Dawn, October 22nd, 2015

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