Mateela, a village near Islamabad, has a tradition of male-only voting. The women in this land of wheat and orange trees have never been allowed to vote, and this is not going to change this year either.
According to the residents, the decision was taken by the men of the village collectively, along with men from nearby communities. The reasons cited are varied. Some men say women don’t have the mental capacity. Other times they don’t want wives and daughters to leave the house. Some simply don’t see the point.
Women represent only about 43 per cent of the roughly 86 million registered voters, according to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) data. In more conservative areas like Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, the percentage drops even further.
Talking to activists from The Association for Gender Awareness & Human Empowerment, Yar Muhamamad, a village elder said it wasn’t a matter of discrimination. The problem, he said, was that the local polling station was mixed gender. The men worried that their wives and daughters would be harassed, so they wanted a separate women’s station.
In some places, but not all, polls are specified for men or women only.
“We stop our women from going to polling stations because we think if they do, men would tease them by staring or touching them,” he said.
Pakistani women have an uphill battle in terms of their political and social participation. Sixty of the 342 seats in the National Assembly are reserved for women. They are handed out to parties in proportion to how they do in the overall race. But women can also run for the general seats, in competition with men on the campaign trial.
In 2008, 64 women ran for general seats and 18 made it to the parliament. This year, the number of women contesting general seats has jumped to 161, out of a total of 4,671 candidates, according to data provided by U.N. Women, which focuses on women’s empowerment and gender issues. Elections for provincial assemblies saw a bigger rise, with 355 women running among nearly 11,000 candidates, up from 116 in 2008. Yet there is still a long way to go before the public space can truly be said to be gender neutral.
In Mateela, the women definitely want to assert themselves politically. They are not in a position to contravene their fathers and husbands, but they try to change their mind. The women know political decisions affect them as much as the men and they dream of a better future for themselves and their daughters.
According to the Free and Fair Election Network, one of the major hurdles for women to vote has been the lack of national identity cards. Yet this trend is changing as many more women are getting their cards made to avail government schemes like the Benazir Income Support Programme.
The men in Mateela say they are willing to let women vote if the ECP sets up a separate polling station. But the commission said that wasn’t possible because the voting lists had already been finalised. Meanwhile the activists hope to convince the community of the benefits of women voting, if not now, then sometime in the future.