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For nearly half a century, the women of Jahan Khan village, Chak 111/9-L, which falls in NA-147 and PP-198, Sahiwal I, Punjab, have not voted in a general election.

In the 2008 and 2013 elections, there was zero turnout of women recorded at the polling stations for women at the village.

Also read: Why bans persist on women voting across Pakistan

However, according to residents here, there is complete consensus among the elders of dominant biradaris that women will not be allowed to vote. They term it a matter of honour.

While many continue to believe that the village clans will continue to bar women from voting in the upcoming elections, there are others who say that the political polarisation in Jahan Khan village may compel rival groups to bring out women voters to defeat their opponents.

Situated on the fringes of the Pakpattan-Sahiwal Road, the village is barely a 10 minutes’ drive away from Sahiwal city. It has a population of around 9,000 and has nearly 1,100 households.

The largest abadis in the village are Jahan Khan, Shadoo Kay and Kubay Kay, while the dominant village clan is Joya Rajput. The main rival groups here are from within the Joya clan — one led by Samand Kay Joya and the other by Khaar Dilwar Joya.

In this election, Khaar Dilawar Joya’s group has announced its support for Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s candidates Nauroz Shakoor for NA-147, and Faisal Jalal Dhaku for PP-198.

Therefore, Samand Kay Joya’s group is supporting candidates fielded by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz on these seats — Pir Imran Shah and Malik Arshad. There is also support for independent candidates including Chaudhry Asif and Mahar Altaf Nawaz.

We hoped that women would turn up to vote after this, and while voter turnout improved in the other two villages, the situation in Jahan Khan did not.

Alwera Rashid

UC chairman Rana Zafar says there are members of Samand Kay Joya’s group that support the PTI, and similarly, many members of the rival group support the PML-N; however, the nearly nationwide polarisation around the PML-N and the PTI may play out violently in this village. “It’s like an India-Pakistan warlike situation in village,” says Zaheer, a resident of the village.

Many fear the possibility of violence breaking out on Election Day, primarily “because many groups are supporting candidates across inside and outside opposite camps of rivals,” Rana Zafar says.

Former nazim Hameed Asghar tells Dawn that women of Jahan Khan village voted in the two previous local government elections. The reason for that is that the representatives in those elections were closer to home, compared to candidates in general elections, and women’s votes could swing the outcome in favour of who they voted for.

Hopes for an inclusive election

Residents point toward aggression, ignorance, male chauvinism and patriarchal norms as some of the reasons why women of Jahan Khan village do not vote.

In the lead up to the 2013 elections, Punjab Lok Sujag, in partnership with the election watchdog FAFEN, identified three women’s polling stations in three NA constituencies, where the turnout of women was zero in the 2008 elections. They were in Village 65/4-R, (PS-271), Village 101/12-L (PS-164) and Village 111/9-L (PS-15).

These villages were chosen for a mobilisation campaign by a civil society organisation looking to change the election turnout of women. The NGO distributed pamphlets, banners and posters to raise awareness. They also put up a 35-minute street theatre titled Parchee. The play was written by Lakhat Pasha and performed by local volunteers of the Punjab Lok Rahs in all three villages.

According to the ECP’s data for 2013, two of the villages — 101/12-l and 65/4-R — recorded 57 and 50 per cent women’s turn out respectively. But the women’s turnout in Jahan Khan Abadi remained zero.

Alwera Rashid and Humeira Rana, who organised the campaign, remember holding the theatre performance in Jahan Khan Abadi four days before the 2013 elections.

“We mobilised around 100 women from the village to come and see the performance which we organised in the lawns of the Government Girls’ Primary School,” recalls Ms Rana.

On the day of the performance, a mob of young men wielding thick bamboo sticks surrounded the school and shouted “Beghairat” (disgraceful) and “Besharam” (shameless) at the people who had gathered inside to watch the theatre performance.

A contingent of the Elite Police Force was called in and they surrounded the school and ushered the performers and women in the audience out of the school premises, Ms Rana recalls.

“We hoped that women would turn up to vote after this, and while voter turnout improved in the other two villages, the situation in Jahan Khan did not,” says Alwera Rashid. This time around, FAFEN partners did not attempt any such mass campaign, she shares.

The polling scheme issued for NA-147 by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), shows that there will be two polling stations for women and two for men at Jahan Khan village. The latest electoral rolls show that there are 4,022 total votes registered here, of which 1,822 are women.

“Education is the only way to break the shackles of ignorance,” says Rana Zafar Joya. He hopes that the environment of intense polarisation will force the opposing groups to bring women to vote.

Former councillor Malik Umer Farooq says if one of the two rival groups brings women to vote, the other will automatically follow.

But the situation depends on how election day plays out overall. Mr Farooq adds that it is obvious that the groups will have to bring out women if they want to one-up the other, but that can happen only if voting takes place without incident on election day.

Published in Dawn, July 24th, 2018