Pakistan is all set to hold elections in February. But in its race to conduct this important exercise, it may be found guilty of leaving behind one important group of voters – women. According to a report published by Human Rights Watch (HRW), out of 127 million registered votes, 10 million more men than women have registered to vote in the upcoming election. Women’s participation in the electoral process is more controversial in conservative constituencies. There have been instances in the past where women were banned from voting. While Pakistan has now adopted more progressive resolutions that say that for an election to be valid, 10 per cent of the voters have to be women, these positive changes in legislation have not yet transformed into an inclusive election exercise where women play a decisive role in electing their representatives. According to the HRW report, one reason for the small number of women voters can be the requirement that only those who have a CNIC can register to vote. There are many families that are still against the idea of letting their women have CNICs – an essential identity document. But there are countless other women who choose to remain far away from the electoral process.
Women are deliberately pushed away from election campaigns. While there are a number of women politicians, most of them are elected on reserved seats and do not necessarily have to launch their election campaigns. Mainstream political parties in Pakistan rely on political gatherings or corner meetings for their campaign, but both kinds of gatherings are on the streets, late at night, when most women choose to not step out of their homes. There is also the not-so-small matter of the way male politicians speak about women supporters of rival parties; the misogyny inherent in their remarks and some of the openly sexist remarks – the most recent being statements by PML-N head Nawaz Sharif – end up discouraging most women from attending public rallies. Similarly, given the domestic chores that women have to perform, they rarely get time to attend jalsas or meetings to listen to what a political party has to say about their election plans.
In a patriarchal society where women’s mobility is limited, parties should have switched to social media platforms that are commonly used by women. But a report by the Institute for Research, Advocacy and Development (IRADA) in Pakistan concludes that the country’s oldest and newest parties do not use digital tools to reach out to their voters. In a political atmosphere where most women are kept away from political discussions, it is not surprising that women voters will be less in number. It is true that the Pakistan government has introduced laws to bridge the gender gap, but a lot more needs to be done to encourage women in the political process. We have had many examples of women in the past who led important political movements and made their votes count. Pakistani society needs an overhaul, and all patriarchal structures that deliberately keep women away from the political decision-making process should be dismantled.