Election laws empower women in Quetta

By Malik Achakzai

Quetta: The Election Act 2017 has revamped Balochistan; a conservative province where constituents will be able to vote for various female candidates contesting the general seats for the first time in the history of Pakistan.

Quetta is the capital city of Balochistan where the number of registered voters is 683, 957 in total, with men constituting 399,122 of them, and female voters being 284, 835, all of them combined will be electing 3 national assembly seats and 9 provincial assembly seats in light of the 2017 census result and delimitation process.

Every political party is obliged to have 5 percent general seats for women to be elected by the direct votes of the registered voters as per Election Act 2017. Although  the political parties are following the law, the contesting female candidates argue that they are not given tickets for seats that are traditionally the winning ones or those from the party’s majority vote bank.

Only three female candidates for the 2018 elections would be contesting three National Assembly seats in Quetta, while 58 male members have been eligible for the contest. A mere 13 female candidates out of 234 candidates are contesting for provincial assembly as per the data issued by the Election Commission of Pakistan.

Sitting in a corner alongside her party fellows and male participants at a gathering in Pashtoon Abad, the capital’s periphery, Sana Durrani looks confident and hopeful about successfully gaining votes for her party manifesto.

“The political parties are not serious about letting the women’s wing and activists contest  the winning seats because the conservative tribal structure is rather patriarchal”, says Sana Durrani, a candidate from the newly formed Balochistan Awami Party on reserved seats for women.

“Most of the political parties’ leadership send forth their family members or allocate reserved seats on the basis of nepotism within the party, the women who are selected this way are unable to speak regarding these issues and remain vocal in parliamentary politics,” says Sana.

She allegedly blames the traditional and cultural structure of the Pashtun and Baloch societies across the province and she believes that women do not receive their due share in economy, property and even in the family, as women are treated as equals when it comes to men.

The ex-MNA from northern Balochistan’s Pishin district, Naseema Hafeez Panezai is favoring the idea of more women in politics and going out for asking votes from the public as general election candidates. However, she rejects any gender-related, religious, racial and sectarian biases among the comrades of Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party. “In comparison to women, we have a very high proportion of male contestants in general elections and seats in all elected houses. We hope that the election commission will push political parties harder regarding the representation of women, and that the quota should be increased from 5 percent to 20 percent in order to promote women’s participation in politics. Women constitute over fifty percent of the population in Pakistan, and if is imperative for them to be empowered in order to represent a significant majority of the public,”  says Naseema.

Professor Rehman Achakzai head of the Sociology Department at the University of Balochistan is beginning to see an evolutionary shift in politics as the sign of women contesting elections in the province signals the beginning of women empowerment.

“Increased awareness is still needed, as we still have a long way to go before we reach gender equality in Pakistan as a whole, let alone Balochistan. We remain hopeful towards this goal, especially since a tribally cultured society is letting its women contest elections on general seats for the first time, and allowing them to go through the process of direct electioneering to parliament,” says Rahman.

“Rome was not built in a day,” he puts forward a quote, “Political parties have felt that without the representation of women and youth, their survival would be tough as these two groups make up over half of the population, their needs and their opinion must find a way in every sector of life including parliamentary elections,” he said.

“We have a culture in our society where women are considered lesser than men, which is never true, and this narrative needs to be de-framed. Even in marriages women are served food after the men eat,” Naseema, endorses how society is still lagging behind. “The political parties always awards tickets to those candidates who are winning, no party wishes to lose in election, so in a patriarchal society it will take time to bring women equal to men but we should remain steadfast and push for a more progressive culture where gender bias has no role.”

Balochistan was once noted for the highest maternal mortality rate, and if is considered to be far behind when it comes to modern standards of life in its scattered areas, which comprise half of Pakistan. Once the elected leader from the province defended honour killing as a cultural practice for the various tribes living in Balochistan. Majority of the girls are either out of school or do not have access to education as there are no schools in remote areas.

“Sardars and Nawabs would never bow down before the law and accept women’s status in  parliamentary politics, which has led to a mindset where people prefer not to vote for women. We need a complete refurbishment of this mindset, and a more transparent method that would let political parties elect their members based upon merit and give them an equal share in the general seats in national assembly, senate and provincial assembly as well as the local bodies election,” says Sana.

Yasmeen Lehri is a central figure of the women’s wing, National Party. She has been a vocal face representing women in politics from Balochistan who served as member of the provincial assembly from 2013 to 2018.

Yasmeen Lehri contesting for NA 265 and PB 32, both a national and a provincial seat, from the capital city, criticized political parties and their leaders who had a history of only serving their wives. She said, “The culture will slowly change. Representing women in the parliament is not an easy job. For this one needs to be a mature political worker.”

Lehri explained that political parties would allot seats on the basis of nepotism and the elected women were not representing the concerns of female constituents, they were simply filling the quota of seats reserved for women, which was merely an eyewash in reality. “Even though we [women] are not satisfied with a mere 5 percent quota for women, it is still a ray of hope for the next generations to struggle and gain their seats in the parliament through electioneering as contesting candidates, not on the basis of like and dislikes of the parties’ male leaders alone,” she said.

“Many of the political parties in Pakistan have only mentioned the women in their manifestos, when in reality the women’s wing is mostly nonexistent and that the elected women do not have a voice when it comes to intra party elections and party decisions,” Yasmeen Lehri explained.

Aliya Kakar, a social activist, remains hopeless even though the political parties have nominated female candidates for the general seats and reserved seats quotas. “Democracy is incomplete without female voters and electables, and yet they are sent to parliament without proper training and information regarding their rights and duties, which is why they can rarely discuss issues of importance. They are given pre-written speeches which pander to the agenda of male leaders. If  women in parliament try to violate the status quo and put their personal opinions forward, they are threatened with not being elected or selected for the second time.”

“We have a constrained democracy due to the relentless control within the political parties themselves. Unless our leaders, men in particular, decide to have a more accepting attitude and an open mind towards women in politics by giving them the independence to discuss women related issues openly, we will lag behind and never progress,” says Aliya.