Democracy in Pakistan has mostly been precariously placed at an edge – barely lifting off before its pulled down by interventions, direct or indirect. While ‘jalsas’ may be huge and impressive, vote turnout has hardly ever been what it should be in a country that has been striving for democracy and whose people – despite all odds – have steadfastly stood by the democratic process, flawed though it may be. A smaller number of registered voters in the country has remained a big challenge for parties. But things have taken a turn – and thankfully in the right direction – over the years. According to the Election Commission of Pakistan’s (ECP) latest statistics, more than 21 million voters have been added to the electoral rolls, bringing the total to 126,980,272. One remarkable feature has been the addition of around 11.74 million women to the voters list. This figure is heartening more so when we compare it to the number of newly registered male voters – 9.28 million. The gender gap that was at 11 million in the 2018 general elections has now dropped down to 10 million, signalling a positive shift in the country.
Despite the positive shift, much more needs to be done. Women’s participation in political activity has a lot of space for improvement. Most women do not attend political gatherings out of fear of harassment and name-calling. Others prefer staying at home because participating in political activities is still a taboo in different parts of the country. Also, when women are out, they are more vulnerable to people’s scrutiny. There are still areas in the country where women are actively prohibited from voting – something the ECP and the governing structures have taken note of over the years. In these areas, local authorities such as the District Election Commissions need to take up the responsibility of making sure that women do turn out to vote without any intimidation from local elders or patriarchs. In the past, some political parties have also vouched in unison in some conservative constituencies not to allow women to vote. Barring women from voting is a sign of a larger malice in a society that is essentially misogynist and where women do not receive the due share in even their inherited properties. If anyone discourages women from voting, that person or party does great harm to their constituencies, families, and society at large.
Encouragingly, the updated election law now requires women’s votes to be 10 per cent of total votes in any constituency for the election to be valid. This has allowed more women to exercise their right and have a louder say in the political matters of their country. The rise of social media networking sites and women’s access to such apps has also played a big role in creating a drive among young women voters. Women make 49 per cent of the country’s total population, and each time they have been given this liberty, and right, they have taken part enthusiastically in balloting and even put themselves up as candidates. It’s 2023 – ideally we ought not to be having this conversation. One half of the country being actively discouraged from politics lies at the root of many problems facing the country. Pakistan is already on a regressive path; the fact that more women are registered as voters is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise bleak democratic picture.