Rani Bibi is a teacher at the girls’ primary school of Jahan Khan, a village community of about 10,000 residents in the Pakistani province of Punjab. She is one of the few highly educated women in the village. But that doesn’t mean it’s self-evident for him to go to the polls on Wednesday. No woman ever voted in Jahan Khan. “This is a society in which men dominate,” Bibi explains.
Jahan Khan is one of the many villages in Pakistan where women traditionally do not vote. As a result, in the 2013 national elections, in Punjab alone, there were seven constituencies – including a few hundred villages – where female turnout was less than 5 per cent.
Across Pakistan, there are 12 million fewer women than men registered as voters. This time, a new electoral law should ensure higher turnout among women. If less than 10 percent of women vote in a constituency, the result will be invalid.
It has to be seen whether the new law will bring change in Jahan Khan. There are hardly any women in the village, except for a curious peek through the crack in the front door. Groups of men sit here and there talking, but most of them do not want to talk about the subject.
“It was decided long ago by the village elders,” says Hafis Manzoor Ahmed. He sits with two other aged gentlemen on a bed of bamboo in a dusty courtyard, smoking a large pipe of water in the cool air of a rusted fan. “We are conservative people. We don’t allow women to work on the field. Going out to vote is seen as indecent, an insult to the whole family.”
According to the elected head of the village council, Rana Zafar, the problem is the lack of education. “Most of the women here are illiterate.” Apart from the primary school for girls, a small and crumbling building, there are no higher education institutions for girls in the wider area.
But the low turnout among women does not happen only in villages with low literacy. Another example of low turnout among women is Dhurnal, a village about 400 km away, which has a separate secondary school and college for girls.
When asked about the women of his own family, Zafar admitted that he never even voted. He reluctantly uses the word respect, like Ahmed. But, he assured me: “This year I will personally take them to the polls, and I will also ask all other families to vote for their wives.” When asked if any of his female relatives might be around, he nods with a laugh. “No, they won’t give an interview. They’re shy, and they don’t know how to express themselves.”
Thanks to the women’s quota, there has been one woman in the local village council since last year. Sabira Bibi goes door-to-door to bring women to the polls – also because her husband is an independent candidate in the election and can use the extra votes. “But that’s not the main reason,” says the 28-year-old mother of three who lives with her family in a one-room house. such as education. That’s why voting is important.”
stones and sticks
“We are hopeful of a change this year,” said Sadiq Bhat, an activist from the nearby town of Sahiwal. With his organization Punjab Lok Suzag, he tries to organize women in the region. “In other villages we get a lot of support. But in Jahan Khan, when we wanted to stage a play for women, the youths blocked the road. They had sticks and stones were thrown. Women’s interest And with their help, the police were able to take it forward.”
neck and neck race
If Jahan Khan’s women vote on Wednesday, according to Bhat, it will not be because of the new law or because the men have suddenly adjusted their sense of honour. “Elections are very polarized this year. Every vote counts. So men will also take their wives to the polls.”
The latest surveys show a neck-and-neck race between the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), the current ruling party and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), the party of former cricket idol Imran Khan.
Old Ahmed wants PTI to win. “That’s why I am letting my wife and daughter vote this year. But only if they vote for PTI, not otherwise.”
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