Who Should Pakistani Women Vote For?

Pakistani women’s rights analyst Rafia Zakaria wrote in CNN about how Pakistani women face impossible electoral choice between PTI’s Imran Khan and PML-N’s Maryam Nawaz Sharif.

Zakaria writes: “Pakistani women now face a choice. Should they continue to support a political party led by a woman convicted on corruption charges — or vote for a party led by a man with scant regard for women’s rights?”

While I appreciate the points in the piece I’m not comfortable with framing the election as a binary choice between Imran and Maryam Nawaz Sharif.

Unfortunately, it’s fairly obvious that women’s rights are subject to political manipulation throughout Pakistan. Despite its trumpeting about women’s empowerment, the PML-N isn’t interested in protecting women when it really matters. Yesterday the caretaker government removed Salman Sufi as the head of the Special Reforms Unit in Punjab. Sufi was heading up a few women-centered initiatives, including the VAWC (largely cosmetic in nature, concentrated on “resolving” cases after the violence has taken place, and based on the ineffective Violence Against Women act which does not criminalize gender-based violence) and Women on Wheels – a scheme to get more women on motorcycles in Lahore.

Cosmetics aside, a party needs to have more women leaders than a figurehead who is near the top, and Maryam Nawaz merits more comparison to Ivanka Trump than she does to Benazir Bhutto.

PTI is hopeless when it comes to women, and its leader is, in my opinion, a chauvinist, despite the attempts by the PTI to paint him as a champion of women’s empowerment. I don’t think either will serve the needs of Pakistani women, to be honest. It’s pretty galling for women’s rights to appear on page 26 of an election manifesto or last in a list of issues after tourism and sports. Pakistani women should look beyond cosmetics in this party as well; where are the women leaders in the PTI, and do they really have any power, or are they just symbolic?

The best bet for women may well turn out to be the PPP, which has historically been the most secular and progressive of all Pakistan’s parties, in which Benazir’s younger daughter Aseefa is campaigning visibly and successfully, and which has women in the highest echelons of party leadership. Their recent manifesto puts women’s rights and empowerment at the top of the list. They were behind BISP, the Benazir Income Support Program (Marvi Memon served as its head under the PML-N government. Under Memon’s leadership, BISP has garnered world attention, but it still has its flaws and has been accused of corruption and other failures).

There are 171 women running in general elections (not on reserved seats) out of whom the PPP has given the highest number of party tickets. Or, women could put their faith in an independent candidate who pledges to protect women’s rights. There are a lot of grassroots candidates, men, women and even trans, who I would vote for. Jibran Nasir in NA 247, for example, or Omar Soomro in Jacobabad; Sunita Parmar in Umerkot PS-56 in Islamkot.  (Parmar is a very vocal critic of the PPP and of BISP; check out her views in the video).

Yet as political commentator Ghazi Salahuddin remarks, “the women elected on reserved seats or through the Senate who are the ones who usually end up highlighting women’s issues in National Assembly and Senate.” This is actually the formula that has seen most pro-women legislation make it through, with women uniting across party lines.

Still, our biggest problem as Pakistani women is not who to vote for, but the obstacles that we still face in getting to vote in the first place. According to Qurratulain Fatima writing for TRT, there is a voting gap of 12 million voters; women still need to be issued NIC cards quickly in order to close the gap, and it’s unlikely NADRA will be able to do this in time. Then, there are always the Islamic hardliners who try to convince men not to let their women vote because it’s “unIslamic”. We even had a lunatic assuring everyone that it was unIslamic to even vote for a woman.

Fatima observes: “Still, steps can be taken now to empower Pakistani women. For starters, better gender-segregated data could help the ECP and other organizations 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.”

*Disclaimer: I have no preference for any political party, am not a member of any party, and cannot even vote because my voter registration was erroneously listed as Lyari whereas that is not where I live in Karachi. I have asked NADRA to rectify the situation but no response.