More women in Pakistan polls signals ‘political freedom’

February 23rd, 2008 - 2:08 pm ICT by admin  

A file-photo of Pervez Musharraf
By Muhammad Najeeb
Islamabad, Feb 23 (IANS) For the first time in Pakistan’s history, an increasing number of women stood for elections in Monday’s polls that also saw women coming out to vote in larger numbers - an encouraging trend signalling “freedom for women in politics”. While at few polling booths, women were barred from casting their votes, in other areas they polled in large numbers with encouragement from local jirgas or elder’s assembly.

In comparison to 1988, that only saw 27 women running for the general seats, this year the number increased by more than six times - to 168.

In 1988, four women were elected. This year, 13 will take oath in the National Assembly. In addition, hundreds of women registered themselves to contest for the 60 reserved seats in the National Assembly and 128 in the provincial assemblies, while 116 women contested for the 577 general seats in the four provinces.

As a conservative Muslim country with female literacy only being 35 percent, the Pakistan Election Commission had set up separate polling booths for women so that they come out to vote in larger numbers. Of the 80 million registered voters, about 36 million are women.

Waziristan and Kurran agency are two places where local jirgas had decided that women would not only be allowed but also encouraged to vote in the elections to elect 10th National Assembly.

“Women in our society work more than men, though their work is different… we believe they have rights,” Haji Umer Mehsood, who voted in general elections in 1997 for the first time after adult franchise in the tribal areas directly ruled by the federal government.

Before the 1997 polls, only senior members of different clans known as ‘Maliks’ were allowed to cast votes. However, just before the 1997 elections, the then caretaker government introduced reforms in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) electoral law.

“A week before the elections there was a jirga that said since the government is setting up women-only polling stations, the women should vote in the elections,” Mehsood told IANS.

He said though only 211 women voted in his constituency, he believes the numbers would increase in the future.

Women in some North West Frontier Province (NWFP) areas, tribal areas and Punjab were barred from voting in Monday’s general elections. Authorities have promised they would take action against those behind the move.

Mehsood said some of the candidates in tribal areas also transported women in vehicles to polling stations. “I think in the next three to four elections women will be polling just like men,” he said.

“I think this is good sign. These elections have signalled a greater degree of freedom for women in politics,” says Saima Karim, an activist for women rights.

She said it was very “heartening to know that a large number of women have participated in the elections and women in tribal areas went to vote”.

“It shows that the elders are willing to break with tradition and defy the dictates of militants,” Karim told IANS.

The reserved seats for women had lapsed in 1988 under the 1973 Constitution but President Pervez Musharraf not only revived these but also increased the number from 20 to 60.

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