If news reports are to anything to go by, the disenfranchisement of women in Lower Dir in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa appears to have come to an end. Amid pressure from rights groups and the media, women in the district were given the opportunity to exercise their right to vote in the February 20 re-election on some seats in Lower Dir.
This came as big news as women in Upper Dir and Lower Dir were barred from exercising their right to vote in the local government by-elections in the valley in December 2017.
A verbal agreement had been reached in 2017 among all major political parties – including the PTI, the PPP, the JUI-F, the PML-N, the ANP and the JI – to restrain women from voting. In the past, such agreements were often made public through social media. On one such occasion in 2015, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) faced tremendous pressure from rights activists and had to declare the polls void before the court announced the election results in favour of a JI candidate who contested on the PK-95 seat in Lower Dir, which was left vacant by Sirajul Haq when he became a senator in 2014.
It is now common practice in various parts of KP, Gilgit-Baltistan and some parts of Punjab to disfranchise women through male-dominated jirgas. In early 2008, I was in Upper Dir to observe a by-election campaign. I was informed by some progressives that a jirga of all parties had decided to bar women from voting to prevent conflict. Much to my consternation, a progressive guru told me that: “[This] was proposed by us. We are trying to defeat the [extremist elements] on their own ground as it is those elements who [have advocated the] disfranchisement [of] women [for years]. Now they are caught in their own trap”.
I was told that most of the female teachers in the region have either been appointed by the JI or are affiliated with the party. In short, the JI wields considerable influence on female teachers, who are often appointed as polling officers at polling stations for women. This has helped the party undermine the efforts of opposition parties in the region.
Given the limited political awareness and levels of education among women, female polling agents from the JI can influence voting behaviour through the help of polling officers. If liberal and progressive elements in Dir are to be believed, the JI appears to have gained disproportionately from this situation. In the past, the landowning classes in rural areas could easily manipulate elections as schools were located on their estates. Therefore, polling stations for women often became centres of controversy. More often than not, candidates would arrive at these stations with gunmen, harass female voters and cast bogus votes.
Conservative factions have propounded the argument that decision-making, especially in the political sphere, is dominated by men. As a result, only men should be allowed to determine who wins in the battlefield of politics. In Pakhtun society, it is a common perception that the voting behaviour of a family is predominately set by its male members. However, the increase in education standards and urbanisation has now made it easier for young people to voice their dissent. This is especially common in large cities where men and women are seen openly participating in sit-ins and campaigns in favour of political beliefs that are at variance with their elders or families.
For the PPP and its allies in Upper Dir, the overriding challenge has been to seize the opportunity presented by the elections and challenge the pro-militancy JI in the region. The JI has remained a strong political force in Dir since the 1970s. However, the PPP has established itself as a rival force while the nationalist forces have also garnered some support in the valley. Leaders from the PPP and ANP are concerned that the JI’s electoral triumph could encourage the right wing further.
Progressive and radical democratic forces who have supported the ANP and PPP have also found themselves in a bitter competition for influence and power with the reformist JI in the valley. But they would rather withhold the right for women to vote than witness the JI win assembly seats. They are prepared to exhaust all available options to defend their case. I once tried to debate this issue with them in Dir Bazaar. But my efforts were in vain. Liberal democrats, progressives and nationalists are willing to sacrifice women’s suffrage at the altar of electoral necessity.
According to these progressive forces, they need to move swiftly to match the influence of the JI in all fields. If the JI is left to play a significant role in Dir, then it will threaten to mar the emerging political landscape in the region.
Such arguments from the pro-PPP and ANP intelligentsia ignore the multiple levels of engagement and independent thought that are available for women. Some intellectuals have found it difficult to negotiate the situation in the face of a complex political milieu. They have found the marriage between the rising slogans for women’s rights and the frequent attempts to bar them from voting to be inconvenient and against the liberal democratic vision for a peaceful and stable region.
The objective of these efforts was to prevent the decline of liberal, democratic and progressive forces in the region amid a rising right wing. The province had been ruled by an MMA government from 2002 to 2007. In order to halt the ongoing rise of the JI at all costs, the progressive forces, who are mostly associated with various NGOs, have supported the PPP and the ANP. However, this has proved to be deus ex machine in light of past experiences. For most electables and members of the elite, this is by no means contrary to an informed political tactic to win the elections.
Recent news reports suggest that for a large section of male politicians as well as liberal and progressive forces in KP, women’s suffrage has always been an issue that is open to negotiation. The ‘deal’ between the social democratic PPP, progressive nationalists and the JI have left rights activists out in the cold. This not only shows the importance of electoral politics over anything else for the elite and middle classes, but also highlights the corruption and hypocrisy of progressive and radical liberal democratic forces. This is an apologetic attitude that only serves the interests of electables. In order to fight extremist elements, the liberal and progressive forces are dancing to their tune.
Every election in KP now places the issue of barring women from exercising their right to vote to the fore. The PPP and ANP’s campaign to bar women from voting appears to have been tailored to exploit the situation. For this, the PPP and its candidates in Dir have drastically deviated from what used to be the party’s norm. The electoral politics of secular democratic forces exposes the continuing degeneration in the battle of ideas and the increasingly blurred lines between the ideology of progressive forces and the right wing.
For right-wing elements, this provides a favourable context to reaffirm that their agenda continues to hold significance. While on paper they pledge political rights for women and minorities, what truly matters is to exercise equal opportunities in ensuring these rights. At least part of the blame for this falls on the PPP and ANP for their behaviour in the past and present.
Unfortunately, these practices have persisted in the region since 2008 and, on an increasing scale, engulf other parts of the province. This is accentuated by the fact that the party leadership of the PPP and ANP also recognise the weakness of their candidates and, in many ways, approve of them. Regardless of how many women are elected on reserve seats, if women are being prevented from casting their ballots, it will become increasingly difficult to fight for the political rights of women.
It makes little sense to include promises to ensure women’s empowerment in electoral manifestoes if political parties will deny voting rights to women in some constituencies. In their bid to isolate and defeat extremism, democratic and secular forces have so far borne little fruit and have always faced abject failure. ZA Bhutto’s decision to fight extremists on their own turf in the 1970s should teach us some lessons.
The writer is an independent researcher.