Women in Pakistan are barred from voting by their husbands

Women in Pakistan are barred from voting by their husbands

Sitting on her charpai, a traditional, time-worn wooden bed, Naeem Kausir shyly admits that she would like to take part in Pakistan's general elections on Thursday. If only the men in his family would give him permission.

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The 60-year-old former headmistress has a university degree, and six of her seven daughters also attended university. But like all of their neighbors, the village elders forbid them from voting.

“Whether by her husband, her father, her son or her brother, a woman is restricted. She does not have the autonomy to make independent decisions,” explains Ms. Kausir, her face veiled, in the courtyard of her house.

“These men don’t have the courage to give women their rights,” this widow told AFP.

The constitution guarantees all Pakistanis the right to vote, regardless of gender. However, some conservative rural areas remain subject to a patriarchal code that allows village elders to exercise great influence over their community.

The village of Dhurnal in the east-central Punjab province sprawls across farmland and is home to thousands of people. There has been a ban on women voting here for more than half a century.

“Several years ago, at a time when literacy rates were low, a council president decreed that if men voted and women did the same, there would be no one in charge of elections. House and children,” says Malik Muhammad, a member of the village council.

“This uprising, just for the sake of a vote, was deemed unnecessary,” he concludes.

Muhammad Aslam, a trader, says this is to protect women from “local disputes” over politics, like this time, which few villagers seem to remember, when a fight broke out at a polling station.

Religion is being hijacked

For others it is simply “tradition”.

The Electoral Commission has stressed that it has the power to overturn the results of an election in any constituency where women are prevented from voting.

In reality, progress has been slow outside cities and in areas influenced by tribal norms, where millions of women remain unregistered.

In each constituency, at least 10% of the votes cast must come from women for the vote to be valid. In Dhurnal, this is only possible thanks to the voice of women in other villages.

But then female voters often find themselves forced and forced to vote for the candidate chosen by a man in their family.

In January, clerics in the mountainous region of Kohistan (northwest) ruled that women's participation in election campaigns was against Islam.

Fatima Tu Zara Butt, lawyer and women's rights activist, says Islam does not prohibit them from voting, but religion is often misused or misunderstood in Pakistan.

“Regardless of their level of education or financial stability, women in Pakistan can only make decisions with the support of the men around them,” she says.

Pakistan elected the first woman to head a Muslim country in 1988 – Benazir Bhutto – who led policies aimed at promoting women's access to education and work.

“But I do not care”

She also fought against religious extremism after the death of military dictator Zia-ul-Haq, who had advocated radical Islamization of the country and restricted women's rights.

However, more than 30 years later, only 355 women are vying for a deputy seat in Thursday's general election, compared to 6,094 men, according to the Electoral Commission.

Those who run usually only do so because they are supported by a man who is already established in politics. “I have never seen independent candidates take part in elections alone,” notes Zara Butt.

Pakistan, a predominantly Muslim country, reserves 10 of the 342 seats in the National Assembly for religious minorities and 60 for women. However, outside of this quota, political parties rarely allow women to run.

Robina Kausir, a 40-year-old doctor, points out that more and more women in Dhurnal want to exercise their right to vote. However, they fear a strong community reaction, particularly the risk of being pressured into divorce, a source of great shame in Pakistani culture.

According to her, this development is due to greater access to information via smartphones and social networks.

“These men scare their wives; “Many people threaten their wives,” accuses Ms. Kausir. Supported by her husband, she is one of the few who is ready to fight.

During the 2018 election, she found a minibus that took women to the local polling station. Only a handful had joined her.

She still considered it a success and will repeat the experience on Thursday. “I was insulted, but I don’t care. I will continue to fight for everyone’s right to vote.”