Men gathered at a PML-Q camp in Dhurnal. The other picture shows a police official standing guard at the gate of a polling station. — Photos by the writer
Men gathered at a PML-Q camp in Dhurnal. The other picture shows a police official standing guard at the gate of a polling station. — Photos by the writer

Rubina Shahzad woke up early on July 25. It was the day of the general election, a day Rubina had been working towards in Dhurnal village. She phoned women she knew and told them to be at her house before 8am.

Thirty women came with the resolve to vote for the first time in 50 years.

Rubina is a midwife in her 40s.

She lives in Dhurnal village, which is 90 kilometres from Chakwal, in the Lawa tehsil. Alongside Mohammad Tariq, a preacher in his late 30s, with support from the Potohar Organisation for Development Advocacy (PODA), Rubina had spent the election season campaigning to bring women of her village out to vote with the rest of the country on July 25.

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Tariq had thought that it would be easy for him and Rubina to accompany women to polling stations, and it wasn’t until he gathered with the other women at Rubina’s small house that morning that he comprehended the risks.

There were charged young men on motorcycles who had taken over the winding streets of the village. Hundreds of men were gathered at five camps, belonging to five political groups, near polling stations.

“If women go to the polling stations on foot, anything bad can happen,” Tariq murmured to Rubina.

He then tried, unsuccessfully, to hire a vehicle to ferry the voters around. There were scores of public service vans in the village, but not a single vehicle owner was willing to take the risk.

Eventually two observers from PODA convinced their driver to take three women to the polling station in his car.

The driver was from Chakwal city, and unaware of the village atmosphere in which he had willingly offered his services. He took three women to the polling station but refused to take any more.

“When I dropped the women at the gate of the polling stations three men came and asked where I had picked up the women from. Because of their furious tone, I lied and told them I was hired by the women from Rawalpindi and they let me go,” the driver, Mehmood, told Dawn.

Another man, who was standing a few yards away, recognised the women as his neighbours. “He warned me of the consequences if I dared to bring more women,” Mehmood said.

After he refused to take any more women to vote, and Tariq began looking anew for a vehicle, the women at Rubina’s house started to leave.

They had to go back and prepare lunch for their men.

It was 12:35pm by the time Tariq found a van and convinced its driver. Eight women got on, and as the van headed for the station a bearded man passing through shouted: “Stop them! Where are they going?”

The owner of the van, standing at a distance, motioned for them to stop.

“Are you mad? What if the villagers kill you, or set the van on fire,” the owner shouted at the driver, before asking the women to leave his vehicle.

The women eventually reached the polling stations, via a dirt road on which they could avoid any men, in the evening. By the time polls closed, 14 out of 5,501 registered women voters in Dhurnal had voted.

Not a single women in nearby Balwal, where 1,263 women are registered to vote, voted.

According to Malik Yaran Khan, the chairman of Dhurnal union council, 13 women also voted in 2013. But they had travelled from Rawalpindi and Talagang, where they lived, because their votes were still registered in Dhurnal.

“The district administration has done nothing to convince our men since 2013,” a woman told Dawn.

A first-time voter said some women had filed an application with the Election Commission of Pakistan asking it to set up separate polling stations for women, but the polling stations for women and men were still set up in the same buildings.

Villagers do not know the exact year, but they say women in Dhurnal and Balwal were stopped from voting in the 1960s. Men thought the presence of women at polling stations could exacerbate already blood tribal animosity that had broken out over a love marriage.

“Women should vote as it is their right, but no man in the village is willing to risk breaking this tradition,” said Qazi Ghulam Yasin, a two-time union council chairman. He admits that women from his family did not vote either.

District Election Commissioner Abdul Razaq visited Dhurnal a day before the elections and met with village heads.

The entrance to a deserted polling booth. — Photos by the writer
The entrance to a deserted polling booth. — Photos by the writer

He said they vowed at the time that they would not have a problem if women voted, but “it was later revealed they played a double game”.

But PODA regional mananger Naheeda Abbasi said 50pc of Dhurnal’s women would have voted on Wednesday had the deputy commissioner taken coordinated measures in this regard.

There are 4,534 registered women voters in Dholar, a village 35km from Dhurnal where after four decades more than 700 women voted this year. In nearby Mogla, where 1,791 women are registered to vote, 64 voted.

Mohammad Ashraf is a Dholar resident who took the lead in convincing men to allow women to vote.

He told Dawn women had been stopped from voting in 1977, when the major mode of transportation was a bicycle and there were few vehicles villagers could use to bring women to the polling stations.

It was then that village heads unanimously decided to exclude women from the electoral process, because they could not bring women from hamlets like Dhoke Khairchal and Dhoke Sabal to Dholar, where polling stations were set up.

This time, the ECP set up additional polling stations in Dhoke Sabl and Dhoke Mangral, but the votes of women from these two villages were not transferred to the new polling stations, leaving many women from both areas still unable to vote, he said.

“Women voted after five decades in Dhurnal and after four decades in Dholar and Mogla,” the returning officer, Additional District and Sessions Judge Javed Iqbal Bosal, told Dawn.

“A social taboo set up in 1962 has been eliminated after five decades. This came as the first drop of rain,” he said, but added that he was not in a position to share the exact number of women voters because the details have not yet been compiled.

Published in Dawn, July 29th, 2018