Record number of women fight to be heard in Pakistani election
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Saturday’s general election in Pakistan will see a 129.8 per cent rise in the number of women candidates compared to the previous elections in 2008. But about 10 million women are not registered to vote, and even the activists face serious obstacles.
The number of women standing for Pakistan’s National Assembly is more than double that in 2008, according to the official election commission, and many others are standing for provincial assemblies on the same day.
The country has reserved seats for women and religious minorities, official recognition of the longstanding cultural obstacles in their path and helping to boost female representation to 22.5 per cent - higher than the US’s 17.8 per cent, although lower than France’s 26.9 per cent.
And, in a country that had one of the world’s first female prime ministers - assassinated People’s Party leader Benazir Bhutto - more and more women are taking their chances in a straightforward electoral fight.
Many of them are also not bothering to win the endorsement of parties, who tend to nominate women for reserved seats so as to use them as voting fodder in the national and provincial assemblies.
In Punjab province 57 women are standing as non-party independent candidates this year.
“Basically this trend shows women want to become part of politics,” says women’s rights activist Mumtaz Mughal. “We have an image that women are not interested in participating in political process. If we have opportunities women participate in political process, this trend shows.”
That doesn’t mean it’s easy, even for educated, middle-class women, as Mahbano, who is standing for the secular Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) in Lahore, found out.
“My own family were not really comfortable with me being a political leader myself,” she says. “They said: ‘There’s no need to go out there because you’ll be surrounded by men, people you don’t know, who maybe you can’t trust and it’s a way too public a job for a woman’.”
She is grateful to the MQM for treating her seriously and offering her a platform, “because I believe that unless women come out of their homes and start talking about their issues, and especially the issues of children and education, there won’t be any change in the society”.
Campaigning in Lahore, Pakistan’s most liberal city, Mahbano says she was well received by poor and middle-class Pakistanis. But the same could not be said for the establishment.
“When I interacted with the poor people they were very welcoming,” she says. “When it came to the elite of the society the reaction was somewhat cold. But the middle class were [sic] very, very welcoming to me and they appreciated that I stood up. Because the middle class in Pakistan is the social strata which is not being spoken for.”
Big landowners, the “feudals” as they are known here, don’t want female empowerment, Mahbano says. Indeed they don’t want any of the poor to be educated for fear that they will challenge the near-servitude that still exists in much of rural Pakistan.
Last year 16-year-old schoolgirl Malala Yousufzai was shot by the Taliban for fighting for girls’ education in north-western Khyber-Pakhtunkwa province, where the Pashtun ethnic group, with its strong tribal culture, is in the majority.
In some areas, especially the semi-autonomous tribal agencies, men prevent their wives and daughters registering to vote or even in some cases leaving the house alone.
Liberal Pakistanis are anxious to point out that attitudes to women vary across the country.
“It has to do more with culture than religion and it’s important for the outside world to understand that those cultural values are not national cultural values,” Mahbano insists.
“Culture varies from place to place. The area where Malala Yousufzai was shot, that has a completely different culture. According to their culture, women do not belong in the mainstream and they believe more in [the] veiling of females. They believe that they should stay at home and they are a matter of honour for their families and their husbands.”
But attitudes are changing, says Mumtaz Mughal, partly thanks to the internet, and that’s had an effect on the politicians.
“Because of international pressure there has developed a sort of competition between the parties – everybody has to have a women’s wing, everybody has to give women importance – because it’s the fashion [ …] because of global awareness and internet, people want to know what political parties are going to do on such issues,” she points out. “So it’s more out of compulsion than through their own wishes.”
Even right-wing religious parties, including the hardline Jamaat-e-Islami, have women’s wings and mobilise veiled female members for demonstrations.
That doesn’t mean they’ve actually become more broadminded, according to Mughal.
“Jamaat-e-Islami don’t believe in women participating in elections,” she says. “They never give a ticket in a general seat to a woman. However, they don’t mind cashing on the reserved seats by nominating women for the reserved seats because that gives them extra representation in parliament.”
Mughal’s Aurat Foundation has sent the parties a list of women’s issues, including domestic violence, safety and homeworkers’ rights, that need to be tackled.
And they have an action pack for independent women candidates who may lack campaigning experience.
“We are sending the information material because they have not information how to run the campaigns, how to mobilise the voters,” Mughal explains. The men, they are outspoken, they criticise other parties, but women have not skills. So we send out information material, how to mobilise voters, what is an election agenda.”
Change is afoot for women’s rights in Pakistan.
But, once elected, even women MPs sometimes have to fight to be taken seriously, and changes in parliament have yet to transform the lives of millions of women in conservative communities.