Closing Pakistan's electoral gender gap

When Pakistanis vote in this month's general election, more women will be on the ballot than ever before. But the percentage of women casting votes will remain low, as cultural and religious obstacles continue to impede gender equality in the country's political process. By Quratulain Fatima

By Quratulain Fatima

One hundred years ago, women in the United Kingdom gained the right to vote, and today, most women in the developed world are enfranchised. But in many developing countries, the resistance that British suffragettes faced a century ago, rooted in misogyny, persists. This is certainly true in Pakistan, where the general election set for 25 July provides an ideal opportunity to advocate for change.

At first glance, Pakistan seems progressive. The law has permitted women to vote since 1956, almost a decade after independence from Britain. Since then, the number of women in parliament has steadily increased, aided by a 33% quota and rules dictating how many women must be included on party lists.

Women are also contesting elections with more frequency, even in culturally conservative parts of the country. For example, in the north-western region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a 100-year-old woman is running in the general election against former cricket star Imran Khan. And in Tharparkar, an impoverished part of Sindh province, a female candidate is on the ballot for the first time ever.

But a closer look at voting data reveals many challenges in Pakistan's push for electoral equality. Female candidates may be on the ballot, but that does not mean women will vote for them – if they vote at all.

Benazir Bhutto (photo: Getty Images)
Although female voter turnout in general elections in Pakistan is very low and only 70 of the 342 members of the National Assembly are women, the country has in the past been run by a woman: Benazir Bhutto (pictured here) was the first woman to lead a Muslim country. She was prime minister of Pakistan from 1988 to 1990 and again from 1993 to 1996. Educated at Harvard and Oxford, she followed her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, into politics. Dogged by accusations of corruption during bother her periods in office, she was assassinated at a rally in Rajalpindi while seeking re-election in 2007

Bottom in the world rankings

Of the country's 97 million registered voters, 54.5 million are male and 42.4 million are female (the remaining 100,000 are transgender). With a gender gap of roughly 12 million voters, Pakistan ranks last in the world for female participation in elections. A recent analysis of district-level data by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) revealed that even in the most developed parts of the country – such as Lahore and Faisalabad – the gap is more than half a million.

Part of this is due to administrative hurdles. To vote in Pakistan, voters must register with their National Identity Card (NIC). But many women don't have an NIC – either because they are unaware of the need or cannot apply easily – making it technically impossible to vote. Although an NIC can be requested in person or online, women in Pakistan face serious restrictions on their mobility, and many lack access to the Internet.

But the bigger obstacle is religious and cultural prejudice. For example, during past elections, leaflets circulated warning men not to allow female family members to vote, because women's participation in democracy was somehow "un-Islamic". In 2008, not a single woman cast a vote in 31 polling stations in Punjab, Pakistan's most liberal province. A similar tally marked local elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2015.

National figures are only slightly more encouraging. During the last general election, in 2013, female voter turnout was less than 10% at 800 polling stations across the country, and in 17 districts, fewer than 5% of eligible female voters cast a ballot.

When women don't vote, their voices are diminished in Pakistan's already patriarchal politics. This makes it less likely that lawmakers will address women's concerns, and harder for the few women who seek office to win. Of the 342 members of the National Assembly, just 70 are women, and only nine were elected; the rest were appointed under the quota system.

Maryam Nawaz (photo: Reuters/F. Mahmood)
Another Pakistani political dynasty, another high-profile woman politician: Maryam Nawaz, daughter of the deposed Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Together with her father, she voluntarily returned to Pakistan on 13 July to serve out a prison sentence for corruption. They accuse the country's military of orchestrating the conviction in retaliation for their party's criticism of the security establishment and attempts to improve ties with India

Changing the status quo; changing women's lives

It stands to reason that if more women voted, political parties would field more candidates concerned with issues that especially concern women, and that more women would win seats. But how can the status quo be changed, and female electoral turnout increased?

It is probably too late for this election cycle. While the ECP has launched a drive to increase female turnout, and a new law will allow for results to be nullified in districts where it dips below 10%, the reality is that when votes are counted, more will have been cast by men than by women. For one thing, based on the current pace of NIC processing, it will take another 18 years to close the current gap in voter registration. Add to this the religious and cultural constraints on female political participation, and the reform process could take decades.

Still, steps can be taken now to empower Pakistani women. For starters, better gender-segregated data could help the ECP and other organisations design more effective solutions. Political parties could also help by conducting voter registration drives targeting women, and officially sanctioned messaging campaigns could encourage women to register and families to assist them. Finally, religious scholars could work with election officials to help dispel misconceptions about female voting. Most important, all of these activities should be continuous and not limited to election years.

Elections are essential to democracy, but if a large percentage of the population is excluded, the process lacks credibility. Pakistan must strive for gender equality by including women in all decision-making processes – particularly when it comes to legislation. While women in Britain and other democracies have voted freely for a century or more, their counterparts in Pakistan are still waiting for their day to come.

Quratulain Fatima

© Project Syndicate 2018

Quratulain Fatima is a policy practitioner who works extensively in rural and conflict-ridden areas of Pakistan, focusing on gender-inclusive development and peacekeeping.