As election fever sweeps the most socially conservative regions of Pakistan ahead of this weekend’s local government polls, one crucial group is feeling excluded. Following deals between local politicians and elders, women will have no say in the district and village council contests.
The Guardian reports that the affected districts sit in the north-western province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), sitting on the border with Afghanistan.
In marginally less conservative parts of KP women are not only voting, they are allowed to stand for election. The situation is not ideal for Pashtun versions of Margaret Thatcher, however, as communities across the region observe purdah traditions so strict that female candidates are unable to publish their photographs on election materials.
Even where women have permission to vote, the Taliban and other Islamist groups intervene with mosque broadcasts and guarded polling stations to prevent it actually happening. Of 50,000 eligible female voters in a parliamentary by-election in Lower Dir this month, the turnout was zero per cent.
A petition from 12 women to annul the election and have it re-run was thrown out by the high court on Wednesday after a 15 minute hearing at which Siraj-ul-Haq, leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist party that jointly controls the KP government, argued that the women of Lower Dir had merely chosen to respect local traditions by not voting. The election commission is said to be taking “serious notice” of this and the reports of voting bans in place this weekend.
Jamaat-e-Islami governs KP in coalition with the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), the party led by the former cricketer Imran Khan. Although PTI has female members and supporters in the comparatively metropolitan areas of Lahore and Islamabad it chooses to indulge local sensibilities. Ahead of the 2013 general election the PTI in Upper Dir entered into a multi-party agreement to bar women from voting.
On that occasion one woman’s vote was recorded.
Nida Khan, a women’s activist from the region, believes local elders will continue to flout national electoral law, saying:
“There is no government writ in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. We don’t need any Taliban since our so-called politicians with their extremist mindset are enough to push women into the dark.”