Women-only polling stations do not attract many Pakistanis

February 19th, 2008 - 12:43 am ICT by admin  

A file-photo of Benazir Bhutto
By Devirupa Mitra
Rawalpindi, Feb 18 (IANS) Farzana Bushara, a housewife and a die-hard supporter of slain former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto, had a novel way of expressing her admiration. She cut out photographs of Bhutto from magazines and stuck them to her woollen waistcoat. “She is my idol,” said Bushara, coming out after casting her vote at the women’s only polling station at Government Girls School in Khayabana Sir Syed, a colony of lower and middle class professionals in west Rawalpindi.

As a conservative Muslim country with female literacy only being 35 percent, the Pakistan Election Commission organises separate polling stations for the two genders, so that women come out to vote in larger numbers.

All the polling personnel, as well as the poling agents of political parties at the booth, are women, with the only men usually being the black-uniformed local police guarding the premises.

Outside the premises, the camps set up by parties to distribute voting slips were however manned by male party workers.

The women polling stations also become an easier target for ‘dhandli’ (rigging), over electoral rolls.

According to a report released by Free and Fair Election Network (Fafen) late Monday night, about four percent of women’s polling stations were reported to have closed down for at least part of the day. In Punjab province, almost five percent of women polling stations remained closed. They also reported that women were prevented from voting in 16 polling stations.

In an earlier report, Fafen had said that women had been banned by local community leaders in Mandi Bahauddin district in Punjab province from exercising their right of franchise. Two women observers deployed by Fafen had also been reportedly arrested by the police in the same district.

Similar reports came in from the North West Frontier Province, where ‘elders’ closed down two polling stations in Sargodha district.

Incidentally, while 33 percent of seats are reserved for women in all legislative bodies, they are not directly elected, but instead nominated by the political parties. Besides, this time, nearly 160 women candidates have stood for election in general seats to the National Assembly.

While women in tribal and conservative areas struggled to cast their vote, their urban counterparts grappled with the problem of finding their name on the voters’ list.

Sara Mustafa and her mother had come to the polling station arguing vociferously over the candidates. “We plan to vote for different candidates. I will tick the lion (PML-N), while she plans to vote for PPP,” said Mustafa, a final-year MBA student.

Her mother, Feroza Mustafa, meanwhile was worried that her name had not yet been located in the voters’ list. “Look in another place. Our name has to be here, we filled in the form, voted in the last election,” she told the harassed-looking party worker, looking through pages of electoral rolls written in Urdu.

Meanwhile, Rana Shabir Ahmed, a professor of Persian, had come to the station as an advance team for his wife and mother and get their voting slips - he only found the name of his mother. When asked if he had suggested which political party to vote for to the women in his family, he retorted: “Do you think they will listen to me?”

There seemed to be a higher number of supporters among women for PPP, due to sympathy for Benazir Bhutto, compared to men, who were more inclined to give their vote to the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz.

Wearing a veil that left only her eyes visible, 25-year-old Bushra Kiani said that she voted for democracy in the elections.

Inside the polling station, the presiding officer at booth number 66 said that most of the women voters came in the latter half of the day. “They only come out after finishing all their housework and cooking their lunch,” she said.

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