LAHORE, Pakistan — Around a year ago, Saima Akhtar, a domestic cleaner in her early 30s, lost the thin piece of plastic that serves as her national identity card. The cost of a new card — between $3-$6 — and the time and effort it would take to return to her home village were beyond Akhtar’s means. She set the issue aside and carried on with her work, sweeping floors and rinsing dishes.
Like Akhtar, many Pakistani women go about their daily lives without ID cards, but with Pakistan’s elections scheduled for July 25, this may have dire consequences for fair politics. Men dominate representation in political parties, so many observers worry that hurdles to female voting threaten to further diminish the voice of women in Pakistani politics and their ability to help set the country’s national agenda.
Registering women voters
In Pakistan today, women comprise less than half of the country’s registered voters, owing to the challenges they face obtaining ID cards, the distance to polling stations, and cultural norms that restrict women to the home.
Although Pakistan was the first Muslim-majority country to elect a female head of government in 1988, and 60 of 342 seats in the National Assembly and 128 of 728 seats in provincial assemblies are reserved for women, female political participation continues to lag behind that of men – particularly when it comes to voting.
“When you keep making a woman about a man — whether she’s the property of her husband, brother, or another male guardian — we’re never going to see women fully participating in the political process.”— Madiha Latif, senior program officer at Shirkat Gah
“There’s not just one barrier,” pointed out Madiha Latif, a senior program officer at the women’s NGO Shirkat Gah. “It’s a systemic thing where the environment doesn’t enable women to participate politically.”
“When you keep making a woman about a man — whether she’s the property of her husband, brother, or another male guardian — we’re never going to see women fully participating in the political process,” Latif added.
In many cases, male guardians set limits on a women's movements in a public space, including prohibiting visits to government offices to acquire identity documents.
“We conducted surveys and found the basic hurdle to voting was national ID cards. Females did not have that card,” said Huda Gohar, a spokesperson for the election commission in Punjab, the country’s most populous province.
“It’s an excuse not to provide women education, health, and other basic human rights,” added Latif about why ID cards are denied to women by male family members, who often retain control over household finances and determine women’s mobility. Additionally, many indigent parents do not see the utility of obtaining an ID card if they lack the money to register a daughter for school; others cannot afford the cost of registering an ID card at all.
In 2017, the Election Commission of Pakistan sought to remedy this problem by partnering with NGOs in rural areas where the number of female voters was less than 30 percent. In more than 70 districts throughout the country, ECP used vans to create mobile registration offices that could reach women who lived long distances from government offices. In combination with an entrenched system of purdah — a practice of gender segregation — this often prevented women from acquiring an identity card.
Ahead of this week’s election, 46.7 million Pakistani women are registered to vote. But this still only accounts for 44 percent of the electorate, though women make up 48.76 percent of the population. “When it comes to voting, we need a better overall system to ensure that more and more women are encouraged to come out to the polling stations,” added Latif.
Part of the problem may also be due to the polling stations being poorly set up. Pakistan boasts separate polling stations for women, but complaints abound that they are ill equipped, overcrowded, and disorderly. “A lot of women are shoved in a small room,” Latif said, adding that female polling stations typically lack facilities to accommodate children, with whom women often travel.
“Most political parties believe they can convince the women voters through male voters.”— Qamar Naseem, coordinator at Blue Veins
Among registered voters, female turnout can be up to 17 percent less than that of male counterparts, owing to factors ranging from the low engagement of women’s issue by political parties to the logistical hurdles of getting to a polling station.
And mainstream political parties seldom go to women voters directly. “Most political parties believe they can convince the women voters through male voters,” said Qamar Naseem, coordinator at Blue Veins, a Peshawar-based NGO working with women and sexual minorities. "They fear that male voters are the ones who decide who actually wins."
However, evidence suggests that women do not mimic their husbands when asked about the election, and are even less likely to parrot back their electoral priorities: Women name electricity, sanitation, and gas as their top election issues, while men were more likely to name corruption, according to research carried out in Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city.
For Akhtar, whose chief concern is the rising cost of goods in her neighborhood, the upcoming polls do little to assuage her mounting anxieties about Pakistan’s ailing economy, and she believes no politician is paying attention to lowering the price of consumer goods.
“What is in it for me to vote?” she asked. Even her husband is sitting out the election, not incentivized by campaign promises that focus on rooting out corruption or celebrating infrastructure development.
Indeed, in Pakistan, candidates regularly rely on ethnic and religious voting blocs to win elections, and politicians rarely court votes from Akhtar’s residential community in the first place. The lack of direct engagement of women voters has consequences for how they view elections, and their knowledge of political candidates at large. When asked by Devex about her level of awareness of politicians running in her constituency, Akhtar struggled to name any politicians beyond the incumbent figures playing on the national stage.
More women candidates
Despite these trends, there has been a concerted effort to increase the number of female candidates under new election rules. Although women’s representation in parliament stands at only 21 percent — comparatively, in the United States, women held 19 percent of Congress last year — in the last election a mere nine women were directly elected to the parliament. Most come into power on reserved seats for women. This was a decrease from the 2008 elections, which saw a still-low 16 women directly elected to parliament.
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Thanks to reforms passed last year, Pakistan’s new election laws require that women account for 5 percent of a party’s nominated seats. Moreover, in any constituency where the female voter turnout is less than 10 percent, ECP has the power to void the results as a punitive measure to counter the disenfranchisement of women. Punishments range from fines of up to 100,000 rupees ($780) to up to three years in jail.
For women running for office, however, it isn’t always easy to openly assert one’s gender. In many instances, women’s faces on election posters across the country have been supplanted by the faces of their male guardians or simply expunged.
Syeda Zahra Basit Bokhari is a female candidate contesting elections from Punjab. Her campaign posters have her husband’s picture over her name, while a faceless image of a cartoon woman clad in a hijab appears on campaign posters for Mamoona Hamid, a female candidate put forward by a new ultraconservative Islamic political party.
Nevertheless, countless women are openly running for office across Pakistan this Wednesday. Hamida Shahid, a member of the opposition leader cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan’s political party, is one woman seeking a seat in the provincial assembly. She hails from the conservative Upper Dir area of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa — a territory where women were once barred from voting. Last year, hardline religious groups had blocked women from casting votes entirely in local elections. Shahid’s election race has already hit obstacles — other members of her own political party are failing to support the candidate.
Yet in the remote tribal areas bordering Afghanistan — a geographical territory where few women traditionally run for office — women candidates have actually stepped up and garnered support.
Ali Begum Khan, a 63-year-old politician, is the only woman contesting elections in Kurram Agency. Women account for 43 percent of eligible voters in her constituency, and Ali has gone out of her way to appeal to women voters, running on a platform of women’s empowerment, education, and health. She often campaigns in rural areas at female-only gatherings — a canvassing site male candidates cannot access, given the patriarchal codes that segregate the sexes.
“My aim is to uplift the socioeconomic condition of the women in a conservative tribal society,” Khan said.
This election, she’s serious about women making an impact at the polls. “I am damn sure that the women will cast their vote without any restriction,” she added.