Dec 4, 2011

Only three out of about 18,000 women were able to cast votes in the recent by-election in Kohistan apparently due to an informal agreement among political parties

By Zia Ur Rehman

Once again, women voters have been barred from exercising their voting rights in the recent by-elections in district Kohistan of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP), where only three women voters out of about 18,000 were able to caste their votes.

The by-election for provincial assembly constituency PK-61, Kohistan 1, which was vacated after the demise of Awami National Party (ANP) MPA Maulvi Obaidullah, was conducted on November 24. As many as 84,590 voters are registered in PK-61, including 65,786 male voters and 18,804 female. The seat was won by Sajjadullah Khan, an ANP candidate backed by the Pakistan People Party (PPP).

According to the preliminary election observation report of the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN), an Islamabad-based independent election monitoring body, no female voters were seen on the election day, reportedly due to an informal agreement among political parties to prevent women from exercising their rights to vote.

“All the candidates belonging to different political parties, including the ANP, PPP, PML-Q), JUI-F and independent candidates, decided in a jirga on November 17 that women of the constituency would not be allowed to caste their votes,” a local elder, who attended the jirga, told the scribe. “Some of the candidates suggested that male members of a family be allowed to cast votes on behalf of their women, but the idea was rejected by the jirga members.”

This was also corroborated by ANP MPA Bushra Gohar, who informed the National Assembly that women were barred from voting under an agreement reached between contesting candidates at the office of the district coordination officer. She also demanded nullification of the result of Kohistan by-election won by her own party.

“Casting vote is the fundamental right of every Pakistani woman and if women were barred from exercising their voting rights, how can we legalise such elections?” Gohar questioned, adding that it is a mockery of an election when female voters are not allowed to cast their votes.

Kohistan is a conservative and backward district of Pakistan with the lowest Human Development Index (HDI) along with Shangla, Dera Bugti, Tharparkar and Jhal Magsi districts. In the past elections, including the general election of 2008, women in Kohistan district were barred from casting their votes.

In Shangla, a neighbouring district of Kohistan, women were also barred to cast their votes in PK-87 by-election held on January 29, where only around 100 women out of 59,711 registered female voters were allowed to cast their votes. Similarly, in the by-election of NA-21 Mansehra-cum-Tor Ghar held last year in January, women voters were kept away from casting their votes.

The practice of barring women to exercise their voting rights has been going on for years in several parts of KP and Fata, and conservative tribal customs support this ban. Shangla, Upper Dir,Lower Dir, Karak, Bannu, Battagram, Kohistan and Tor Ghar (Kala Dhaka) are the districts of KP where women are traditionally kept from voting. Normally in every election, workers of political parties take the ID cards from female voters and cast their votes according to a formula agreed upon by all contesting candidates.

In the past elections, especially in local bodies’ elections, media reported that all religious and so-called progressive political parties reached agreements at district level through jirgas to bar women from voting. Even in one case, Mufti Gohar Ali, a pro-Taliban leader of JUI-F of Mardan, had warned that violators of such accord would be fined Rs500,000.

Some political analysts think that growing militancy and Talibanisation in KP and Fata is a major threat to participation of women in politics. Threatening pamphlets issued by militants and religious extremists were plastered on walls in some parts of KP and Fata in previous elections, warning women of suicide attacks if they came out to vote.

“We don’t allow women to go to polling stations and show their faces to strangers as it is un-Islamic and against our Pashtun traditions,” says a leader of the ANP in Kohistan, adding that the practice of women voting had led to tension between local Kohistani tribesmen in the 2008 general polls.

But some commentators completely deny it, saying that barring women from voting rights has nothing to do with Pashtun traditions. “The ANP and the PPP, the so-called liberal parties, have also signed several accords in different parts of KP not allowing women to cast votes,” Aqeel Yousafzai, a Peshawar-based political commentator, laments while talking to TNS.

“Kohistan election indicates a completely failure of the government, especially Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), to create a favourable environment for women’s participation in the polls despite the media reports published before the polls stating the candidates are conspiring to prevent women from voting,” he says. “Kohistan is a peaceful area of the KP where Taliban militancy doesn’t exist and the government has complete writ in the area.”

“All NGOs are busy in development and charity work in the flood and earthquake-hit Kohistan, but no one has bothered to sensitise and educate men and women of the area about politics and voting rights,” Syed Latif, a social activist working in Tor Ghar, tells TNS.

“Pakistanhas ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 2010 and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1996. These legal agreements obligate the government, including the ECP, to take all measures necessary to ensure that women’s right to vote can be implemented in practice throughout the country, including Kohistan,” FAFEN said in its recent report, demanding the ECP declare null and void the results for constituencies where women are prevented from voting.

The writer is a journalist and researcher and works on militancy and human rights. Email: