February 12, 2024

Staff Report


LAHORE

Fatema Hussain* was up early on Thursday, her excitement boundless as she prepared to leave the house to cast her vote for the first time in her 25 years of life. Her enthusiasm clearly demonstrated her determination to have a voice in Pakistan’s politics.

She looked as triumphant when she came out of a polling station in NA-128, and said with a smile, “I voted for a lady.”

The same determination was seen among some old grandmothers who tottered along beside their daughters and granddaughters. “I also saw many in wheelchairs,” says Sadia Bokhari, a council member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), who observed the election in NA-47 and NA-48.

Speaking to Voicepk, she said that staff stationed in four polling stations designated for women informed her that “till noon on the election day, they had not had time to breathe because the women had come out in such large numbers.”

Perhaps it was this kind of enthusiasm that led to around 43 percent of women turning out to vote in Pakistan, marking an increase from the 40 percent of women who voted in the 2018 elections, according to Free and Fair Election Network’s (Fafen) preliminary election observation. The male voter turnout is expected to be 52 percent.

The gender gap among voters has reduced with the addition of 11.74 million women, compared to 9.28 million male voters, based on the ECP data. The difference between men and women of voting age after the latest digital census stands at around 10 million in the country, where women make up 49 percent of the population.

“43 percent is a significant turnout against 46 percent registered female voters,” says Fauzia Yazdani, a senior democracy and governance specialist. “It corresponds with the rise in the number of registered women voters.”

However, such positive turnout was not uniform across Pakistan. In Karachi’s NA-241, for instance, at one polling station, women started to queue up at 8am but they were not permitted inside the polling station till afternoon. Disappointed, they left without casting a vote.

In NA-5 of Upper Dir, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) a downward trend was observed, with only 30.6 percent of women exercising their right to vote. That is, some 80,611 women cast their vote out of a total of 263,280 women registered in the constituency. In contrast, during the 2018 elections in the same constituency, 37.9 percent of women voted when the total number of registered women voters was 179,280, with 67,995 casting their votes. This indicates a decrease in voter turnout over time.

According to sources, on the election day in NA-30 of Hasan Khel sub-division of Peshawar in KP, pamphlets were distributed by a militant outfit, denouncing democracy as an anti-Islamic system. The pamphlet asserted that women’s participation in voting is not permissible in Islam. Despite these efforts to influence voters, the independent candidate Shandana Gulzar, backed by PTI, won the seat from this constituency.

In North Waziristan’s constituency NA-40 Miranshah, the voting process was disrupted when an unidentified individual forcibly took the ballot box from a polling station designated for women, thereby obstructing women from exercising their right to vote.

In the village of Dhurnal in Punjab, women were banned from voting, marking the 50th consecutive year of disenfranchisement. The women in the area, educated though they may be, are still prevented from participating in the electoral process by their fathers, husbands, and brothers, who adhere to patriarchal mindsets.

Such disparities in women’s turnout contribute to lower overall women’s voter turnout. The Fafen report states in NA-42 South Waziristan Upper-cum-South Waziristan Lower, the women turnout was only 9.2 percent of women registered to vote. At the other extreme, NA-214 Tharparkar-I registered 72.8 percent of women voter turnout.

Although it’s still early to fully assess women’s voter turnout for the general election 2024, Yazdani expects it to be higher than 43 percent as results are being contested, recounted and finalised. “It is heartening to note that over 1,000 women candidates took part in this year’s elections – they stepped in as covering candidates for their male family members. They actively canvassed in areas such as Miran Shah. This certainly motivated more women to leave their homes and cast their votes.”

Yazdani adds that the timing of the Iddat Case, where a local court sentenced former Prime Minister Imran Khan and his wife to seven years each for entering into an un-Islamic marriage, “also contributed to the higher women voter turnout, earning sympathy for PTI women supporters in particular.”

“Throughout the election campaign, women were at the center of the debate, with the PTI and PML-N arguing over the ‘hamari autein aur tumhari aurtein’ narrative (our women versus your women). Besides, perhaps not so for PML-N, the PTI and PPP certainly focused on a women-inclusive campaign.

“I believe that the only way forward is to defy the prejudices and stereotypes that have historically held women back from being on equal footing with men,” said Fatema. Representing young voters, she added, “Women must take charge, and exercise their right to vote.”

*Name has been altered to protect privacy.

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