An election rally in Landi Kotal. — File photo
An election rally in Landi Kotal. — File photo

Heela Shinwari, a postgraduate student of College of Home Economics in Peshawar, was simply overjoyed when she came out of the polling station in Landi Kotal tehsil of Khyber tribal district after exercising her right to vote for the first time in the recently concluded elections for 16 provincial assembly seats on July 20.

“Although I was eligible to vote in last year’s July 25 general elections, yet I missed the opportunity because of my annual university examinations,” she said while emerging from the main gate of Government Higher Secondary School for girls in Landi Kotal where a polling station for female voters was established.

Ms Shinwari, however, was not satisfied with the number of female voters, who turned up for casting their votes on ‘the historic day’ as it was for the first time that tribal districts were given constitutional right to have their representation in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly after the passage of 25th Amendment in May last year that resulted in merger of erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

“There were only a few elderly women at the polling station when I went there around midday and they too had either no or little knowledge about casting of their votes,” Ms Shinwari told Dawn. She added that young female voters were conspicuous by their absence due to the so-called purdah ‘veil’ tradition in most of the tribal districts.

Nausheen Jamal, a social activist from Orakzai tribal district, said that Election Commission of Pakistan failed to conduct any awareness session or campaign for the ‘little’ literate female tribal voters and focused only on educating male voters before the July 20 polls.

She said that unfortunately no woman employee at ECP regional offices in the seven tribal districts and six frontier regions for which 16 general seats were allocated in the provincial assembly. She added that female voters were ignored despite the ECP’s condition of 10 per cent female voting in every election.

Social activist says no effective awareness campaign was run for educating female voters

Ms Jamal was also critical of the role of almost all the major political parties, who according to her did ‘very little’ to educate the tribal female voters about the importance of vote and also the method of casting their votes on the polling day.

“It is very unfortunate that a good number of female votes goes waste or rejected simply because the stamp is wrongly used and thus the ballot is spoiled,” she regretted.

ECP said that only 210,626 (18 per cent) of the total 1,130,517 registered female voters cast their votes in the July 20 elections. The little knowledge local female voters had about the entire exercise was they expected the winning candidates to address their personal grievances like provision of drinking water and some monetary assistance to run their kitchens.

An elderly woman told Dawn after casting her vote in Landi Kotal that her only source of earning was selling a bundle of firewood which she daily brought from the nearby mountains on her head. She said that her husband died few years ago and she expected that a wealthy candidate, in whose favour she had cast her vote, would provide her some financial assistance.

She, however, said that although the supporters of an independent candidate arranged transport for her to reach the polling station yet they disappeared after she cast her vote.

When pressed as to why she voted for a wealthy independent candidate, she said that male members of her family had persuaded her for doing so, though she was not directly approached by any of the candidates.

Ms Jamal also accused some wealthy independent candidates of ‘buying’ the loyalties of women voters by offering them cash amount.

She said that except for one woman candidate Naheed Rehman Afridi, who was awarded ticket by Awami National Party in Khyber, none of the contenders ran any effective campaign for women electorates nor did they organise a female exclusive rally.

Naheed Rehman Afridi not only ran a door-to-door campaign but also organised a car rally prior to the closing of campaign related activities.

“It was a painful experience when I met female voters during my campaign and heard their grievances,” she said while sharing her campaign experience with Dawn.

“It was for the first time that I had direct contact with tribal women during my political career and they shared their personal woes and distresses which they were reluctant to disclose to male candidates,” she said.

Ms Afridi said that her opponents tried their best to desist her from approaching female voters in the name of so-called tribal customs and traditions.

“I knew it very well that breaking the status quo in tribal areas was an upheaval task but then thought that someone had to accept the challenge and raise voice for the most oppressed segment of our society,” she added.

She said that her photos with tribal elders and male party members were a target of scathing personal criticism on social media but she did not gave up despite tribesmen’s reluctance to let her visit their hujra (guest house) during her campaign.

Her visit to a girl’s seminary was branded as un-Islamic and against the tribal traditions.

“My personal aim was to encourage tribal women to participate in the political process and educate them about their legal and constitute rights,” said Ms Afridi.

None of the male candidates had any credible answer as to how they approached female voters during their election campaign, nor had they any specific agenda for addressing the grievances of the tribal women.

Tribal elders in Sheen Qamar area of Bara effectively banned their womenfolk from casting their vote in the name of tribal customs after a decision to this effect was made during a jirga, held only a day before the July 20 elections. Saadullah Jan, a resident of Sheen Qamar, termed the ban unjustified and unlawful.

He said that those very tribal elders would ignore the so-called tribal customs when they sent their female members of their family for collection of any official assistance, which was given to them as a relief for being victim of militancy or military operations.

Published in Dawn, August 11th, 2019