PESHAWAR: In a paradigm shift from past practices to keep women disenfranchised, two major component parties of the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal have launched a full-scale campaign to bring female voters to polling stations in the general elections scheduled for July 25.

The ulema have started sensitisation of boys and girls studying in seminaries across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to convince male guardians to take female members of their families to the polling stations to cast vote.

The two hardline parties, Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl and Jamaat-i-Islami, which had previously strongly opposed the women’s participation in the electoral process in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, especially in far-flung areas like Dir, are campaigning to encourage women to cast their vote.

Advocate women’s participation in KP elections

The religious parties not only opposed participation of women in the voting process in the recent past but they also ran a campaign against Benazir Bhutto in late 1980s when she was elected the country’s first woman prime minister, insisting that a woman could not become head of the government.

The JUI-F has been organising ulema conventions at the district level in KP to highlight the importance of vote and persuade workers to bring female members of their families to the polling station to participate in the electoral process. The party has also planned to organise workshop in Peshawar on July 15 to train women polling agents.

Spokesman for the JUI-F Abdul Jalil Jan told Dawn that the party had asked its affiliated prayer leaders to underline significance of vote in sermons and emphasise their followers to allow female members of their families to cast vote.

“Prayer leaders insist their followers in sermons that vote is a trust and guide women to stamp on the book symbol on the ballot paper,” said Jalil Jan. The Election Commission of Pakistan has allotted book as electoral symbol to MMA.

“The ulema are seeking commitment from their followers to bring women to the polling stations for casting vote,” he said, adding that the party district units were holding conventions in this regard.

The JI’s women wing has started door-to-door campaign, organising corner meetings for women at the ward and street levels in big cities and towns to encourage them to cast their vote for the MMA’s candidates.

JI spokesman Syed Jamaat Ali Shah said women wing had already started the door-to-door campaign in cities and towns.

He said women were also distributing handbills of the MMA candidates.

During a visit to the MMA’s election office in Swabi Town, an organiser said for the first time, the JUI-F was mobilising women in seminaries in the district to convince them to take part in the democratic process.

“There are over 100 seminaries for women in Swabi district which have affiliation with the JUI-F. Teachers are educating the students to participate in electoral process and give vote to the MMA candidates,” he said.

The religious minded and conservative elements were against the women’s participation in voting in the previous elections. The rival candidates used to strike agreements before polling days that no candidate would bring female voters to the polling stations. Such agreements were reported in the areas like the outskirts of Peshawar, the provincial capital.

The civil society groups protested the growing trend prompting the Election Commission of Pakistan to take legal measures to ensure participation of women in the process.

The commission got powers through the Election Commission Act, 2017, to nullify results in the constituencies, where the women’s turnout was equal to or less than 10 per cent.

The commission had nullified results of by-election in Lower Dir district following reports that women were barred from voting in 2015.

Subsequently, the Peshawar High Court set aside the order of the ECP, which appealed the verdict in the Supreme Court.

Under the act, the political parties are now also required to field women candidates on at least 5 per cent of general seats for the National Assembly and Provincial Assembly elections. Now hardliners are taking advantage of the act and making efforts to de-radicalise people about role of women in the electoral process.

The ECP election scheme shows that there are 6.61 million female voters against 8.705 million male voters in the province.

A fact-sheet designed by the Wifaqul Madaris Al-Arabia Pakistan, which regulates religious education institutions in the country, shows that 5,542 have enrolled 772,260 in KP.

Jalil Jan said Peshawar, Swabi, Nowshera and Mardan had around 400 seminaries for women having affiliation with the JUI-F that propagates Deobandi school of thought.

He said around 2,000 registered and unregistered seminaries had affiliation with the JUI-F only in Peshawar.

“The time has changed and women cannot be barred from the democratic process,” said Jalil Jan explaining shift in the stand of religious groups regarding the women’s enfranchisement.

Analyst Mohammad IIyas Khan said at prima facie this was a positive step, but it would not have a major impact on the overall turnout of voters in KP.

He said the move would not give boost to the religious parties’ vote bank in the coming elections.

Published in Dawn, July 5th, 2018

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