RECENTLY, the Election Commission of Pakistan released its district-wide data on the gap between female and male registered voters in the July 2018 elections. The ECP revealed there were 12.54m fewer registered women voters, although women constitute nearly 50pc of the total population of the country. The figures highlight an unfortunate decline in the political participation of women, as the gender gap between registered voters during the 2013 elections was smaller at 10.97m. The most prosperous province, Punjab, alone accounted for over 1m of the missing registration in 2018. Most surprisingly, Punjab’s capital, Lahore, led the gap with 616,945 fewer female voters. While the large number may be because the city has a bigger population than many other parts of the country, that is not a good enough excuse for the exclusion of so many women from the democratic exercise. This gender gap and the continued exclusion of women from the political process highlights structural inequalities that continue to act as barriers for the vast majority of Pakistani women, despite their prominent and vocal presence in politics and their efforts in pushing progressive legislation.
Ahead of the general elections, both the ECP and Nadra made considerable efforts in ensuring greater participation of women. Along with the poll network Fafen, Nadra updated its electoral list and helped women get their CNICs to have their votes registered. Meanwhile, thanks to the efforts of women legislators, the ECP declared the results of three constituencies null and void due to the low turnout of female voters last July. For the first time, the election monitoring body made it compulsory to have at least 10pc of votes in each constituency cast by women. Although still a relatively low percentage, it is important to have such measures in place in a society such as ours, where misogyny is deeply entrenched and where women’s voices are often ignored and dismissed.
Despite these efforts, much more needs to be done. All too often, so-called progressive parties have joined hands with conservatives to bar women from voting through ‘understandings’. In 2013, the PML-N entered into an agreement with the Jamaat-i-Islami to disallow women from casting their votes in Buner, while the PPP and ANP had entered into a similar agreement with the Jamaat in Lower Dir. Implicit in the marginalisation of women from public spaces and the decision-making processes or keeping them away from ‘serious’ and ‘worldly’ issues is the belief they do not belong in that world. And yet, they are affected by its decisions. Politics affects them as much as anyone else, it is important that they participate. Parliament needs to be more aggressive in pushing affirmative action and encouraging right-thinking legislators. Until society changes, and until women, men and transgendered people are truly equal in the eyes of the law and society, such measures should continue to be in place.
Published in Dawn, April 16th, 2019