Jhelum review | Women are redefining election contests in Pakistan

More than 2,000 women have filed nomination papers to contest in the July 25 national election, among them the first Hindu woman, who happens to be from the backward community

The elections in Pakistan, both for the National Assembly and four provincial assemblies are less than a month away. As the political parties are fighting a bitter and often personal battle to preserve and further their political lot on the voting day that is slotted for 25 July, women are making a strong impact with their resolve to challenge the male-dominated status quo. According to the latest data from the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), more than 2,000 women are taking part in the contest; 1,100 women are fighting from the largest province, Punjab, followed by Sind where 403 are in the fray. Three hundred and fifty women are contesting from the conservative Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province which has been at the centre of violence fanned by fanatic Islamist groups such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) for more than a decade.

During this time, the TTP and other affiliated Islamist terror groups attacked several women, including later Nobel laureate, Malala Yousafzai, and scores of schools and educational institutions, and any symbol that could be remotely associated with the empowerment of women or their rights. In the restive Baluchistan province that is at the bottom of social and political development, and where women are rarely seen in public life, 152 women have filed nomination papers. Even if the participation of the majority of these women may be symbolic, they are churning male-dominated bastions, chipping away at their once uncontested fiefdoms of unbridled power.

Usually, most Pakistani women politicians come from well-settled families with a political or feudal background or both. However, this time around, many women from humble backgrounds and middle- or lower-middle class, rural upbringing are joining politics and contesting the forthcoming elections. Their male opponents see it as a major challenge to their domination or male pride. Zartaj Gul Wazir, a 24-year-old woman from the formerly Federally Administered Tribal Area, is fighting the formidable Legharis in Dera Ghazi Khan, Punjab.

The increasing participation of women in the electoral process and their cumulative visibility in the public sphere has also afforded a much-needed recognition of the transgender population. For the first time in the country’s history, transgender candidates have been allowed to run for office; 13 of them are contesting from across the country

Wazir, who belongs to the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf headed by Imran Khan, is contesting against the powerful Lehgari clan who have been in politics for generations, starting from the days of British India. Despite open threats of violence, including several incidents of firing in the air to create panic, Wazir remains unfazed. Her political rallies and roadshows are attracting thousands of disgruntled people who have lived under the ruthless stranglehold of feudalism that affords them little choice and hardly any life chances amid a lifetime of serfdom where the Sardar, the feudal lord, acts as nothing but God.

The voice of Thar
The most impressive entry in this election is that of Sunita Parmar, the first Hindu woman to contest provincial elections from Tharparkar in Sindh province. Thar, as the Tharparkar is known colloquially, has been in news regularly for the past several years for its drought that has killed hundreds and recurrent malnutrition among the children, destroying thousands of lives to underdevelopment and disease. The area has the largest concentration of Hindus in Pakistan; According to the 2017 census, Hindus form half the population of the total 1.6 million here. Besides drought and malnutrition, the area finds steady mention in tiny and fleeting news items as young Hindu girls are regularly abducted, forcibly converted and married off to Muslims of thuggish ancestry or behaviour.

Worse, these atrocities against the Hindus are happening under the watch of the so-called progressive and secular Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Thirty-year-old Parmar, who herself belongs to the backward Menghwar community, wants to change all that. Though she is careful and uses nondescript language without any reference to her faith, she sounds very confident as she has declared an open fight against the status quo that has institutionalised discrimination and apathy. Without naming the PPP, Sunita blames “ruling political parties in Sindh for worsening conditions for women, especially in education and health sector”. She wants to change that and “play a role in resolving the issues of healthcare, clean drinking water and education for the people of Thar”.

The increasing participation of women in the electoral process and their cumulative visibility in the public sphere has also afforded a much-needed recognition of the transgender population. For the first time in the country’s history, transgender candidates have been allowed to run for office and 13 of them are contesting from across the country, two for the National Assembly. Last year, the country’s top court had intervened on their behalf and directed the government to include them in the census and grant them rights to register as voters, gain national identity documents and have property rights. According to the census published last August, there are only 10,418 transgender people out of a population of 208 million. Although it will take a lot of persuasion and positive legal intervention to make meaningful changes in public attitudes, the 2018 elections are already setting a positive trend.

(Murtaza Shibli tweets @murtaza_shibli)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author and do not reflect the views of SouthWord. SouthWord does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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