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Pakistani Women Hit The Campaign Trail To Ensure Their Voice Is Heard

Women activists in Pakistan's restive northwest are campaigning vigorously to avoid a repeat of a poor female turnout in the 2008 general elections.
Election day is approaching in Pakistan, and women in one violence-wracked province are working hard to ensure they have a voice.

Tens of millions of women are expected to refrain from voting during the May 11 general elections due to societal restrictions, failures in the electoral system, or the very real threat of violence.

In Pakistan's 2008 general elections, only 38 percent of registered women voters cast ballots, according to the Free and Fair Election Network. That compares to 50 percent of male voters, says the independent watchdog of the Pakistani polls.

But most striking is that out of the nearly 29,000 polling stations designated specifically for women, not a single vote was cast in 564 of them. More than half of the stations that recorded no women's votes were in one province -- Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province in the restive northwest.

Women there are doing their best to avoid a repeat of the poor 2008 showing by campaigning vigorously in the hope that their work will keep hard-line religious factions from altering the secular course set by the previous government.

Nationwide, secular candidates are under attack. More than 40 members of one of the country's main secular parties, the Awami National Party (ANP), have been killed since the campaign season opened in April. Scores more have been injured.

Moving To The Vanguard

Dozens of the attacks have been carried out in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province by the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan militant group. Considering the relative safety they enjoy on the campaign trail compared to men, some women have upped their grassroots efforts.

These days Shagufta Malik is one of the busiest campaigners for the ANP in the province. She says that repeated Taliban attacks on her male colleagues have forced her to move to the vanguard.

Malik says that every day she attends scores of groups and visits dozens of homes to shore up her party's support base in and around the provincial capital, Peshawar.

In every speech she delivers a stark message to her audiences.

"We are trying to convince the women to understand that we can die only once and we can never escape death," she says. "But we can raise our voice for our rights and the bright future of our children. This is why we are standing up to the terrorists. Now this election is the only means through which we can fight off and defeat the terrorists."

There are fears that Election Commission efforts to prevent candidates from providing transportation to their supporters to reach polling stations will deter many rural women from voting. (file photo)
There are fears that Election Commission efforts to prevent candidates from providing transportation to their supporters to reach polling stations will deter many rural women from voting. (file photo)

The Taliban are acting on their threats to the ANP and other secularists, including the Muttahida Quami Movement and the Pakistan People's Party. The attacks have undermined their efforts to retain seats in the government they have headed for the past five years.

Taliban attacks and threats have helped ANP's conservative and religious opponents to campaign openly.

In the 2008 vote, political elements opposed measures to empower women and even barred women from voting in some conservative strongholds. The European Union's Election Observer Mission noted that voter bans were enforced by Taliban factions, and were reported in parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the adjacent tribal areas, and the eastern Punjab Province.

Cultural Taboos, Religious Sanctions

Such maneuvering has steeled Malik in her determination to prevent violence from deciding the outcome of the vote. She is going door to door to motivate women to come out to vote.

"The women's vote is very important because they have a big role to play in deciding about the future of peace in our country," she says. "We need to use this election as an opportunity to defeat the terrorists."

There are about 37 million women registered to vote, compared to about 49 million registered male voters nationwide.

Even without the threat of violence, many women are prevented from voting in Pakistan. The Free and Fair Election Network estimates that women voter turnout was as low as 10 percent in some conservative regions. Cultural taboos and religious sanctions are partly to blame, with some radical Islamic clerics having declared women's voting un-Islamic.

In mid-April, an umbrella organization of conservative clerics attempted to counter the notion that voting was un-Islamic. The Pakistan Ulema Council issued a religious decree, or fatwa, that declared voting a "religious responsibility" of all Pakistanis.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, council head Hafiz Tahir Ashrafi supported women's right to vote.

"Today, women constitute some 52 percent of our population and they are part of every segment and every class of our society," he said. "Thus, it would be highly unfair to prevent them from exercising their right to vote. So we have to provide them the opportunity to vote in safety."

The Election Commission of Pakistan, too, is keen on promoting women's participation in the elections. It has notified all political parties that preventing anyone from voting will constitute a crime punishable by fines and imprisonment.

Back in Peshawar, Malik notes that the Election Commission also has restrictions in place, and that they are likely to undermine women's participation.

She points to the commission's effort to prevent candidates from providing transportation to their supporters to reach polling stations -- a practice tolerated in past elections.

This, she argues, will deter many rural women from voting because their polling stations are usually far away. She maintains that few women will have the means to organize their own transport.

"We need to facilitate and encourage women voters," she says.

Written and reported by Abubakar Siddique with additional reporting by RFE/RL Radio Mashaal correspondent Raiz Musakhel from Islamabad
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.