It was a landmark decision which brought both joy and tears of emotion to the eyes of those who have long struggled for women’s rights in Pakistan. In a short order, on 2 June 2015, a full bench of the Election Commission of Pakistan declared null and void the by-election held in PK 95, Lower Dir II, on grounds of the disenfranchisement of women in that constituency. A re-polling will take place. It seems forever now that women have been barred from casting their votes in some parts of Pakistan. Over the years, women have not only participated defiantly and vibrantly in elections at all levels, they have also reached the highest level of representation in the houses of parliament both on reserved seats and general seats. But some areas have kept their women indoors on every election day.
It has been customary for political parties operating in these areas to arrive at prior agreements among themselves that women would not be allowed to cast their votes. This includes conservative and religious parties as well as the so-called ‘secular’ parties. It seems that custom and patriarchical tyranny has always prevailed over the agendas of ‘progressive’ parties. The agreements are verbal but have often been reduced to writing as they were in this case. Aurat Foundation has worked for the participation of women in politics at all levels. It has facilitated the participation of women in local, provincial and national elections by getting their national identity cards made — which is a prerequisite for voting — getting them enrolled as voters, persuading them to run for office, facilitating them to file nomination papers and come out of their houses to vote on election day. And we have also provided training about their work and responsibilities to the women who finally got elected. As the momentum for the achievement of women’s rights increased, so did our zero tolerance for debarring women from voting.
The test came on 7 May 2015 when women were debarred from casting their votes in a by-election in Lower Dir II, PK-95. An agreement had been reached between the Jamaat-i-Islami, Awami National Party, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, Jamiatul Ulema-i-Islam and Muslim League Nawaz to prevent women from voting. Thus as many as 53,000 registered women voters were barred from casting their votes in Lower Dir II, PK-95. The Election Commission of Pakistan took suo moto notice of this violation of fundamental rights and women’s rights organizations and activitists demanded that the election should be declared null and void.
Their petitions were clubbed together and heard for three weeks by a full bench headed by the Chief Election Commissioner, retired Justice Sardar Muhammed Raza. The petitioners were Shabina Ayaz from Aurat Foundation, Bushra Gohar member of parliament, Khawar Mumtaz Chair of the National Commission on the Status of Women, rights activists Tahira Abdullah, Shad Begum and Sikandar Khan. A petition was also filed jointly by 12 women from Dir in the Peshawar High Court seeking to nullify the results of the Dir elections.
Shabina Ayaz, who is the provincial head of Aurat Foundation in Peshawar had led a courageous mission to Lower Dir and her findings had a positive impact on the outcome of the case. According to Shabina Ayaz, the call for barring women from voting was given in Friday sermons and jirgas. The Jamaat-i-Islami had deputed stick-wielding activists outside polling stations to stop women from voting. There was a sense of the ridiculous in the response of the Jamaat-i-Islami, whose chief, Sirajul Haq, claimed that women were too busy with household work and therefore could not vote on election day.
Credit must be given to Mohsin Akhtar Kiyani, advocate, who represented Shabina Ayaz, and argued that this was not just an election dispute but a violation of fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution. Alas, the religious right does not give up easily. To our utter regret, the Jamaat-i-Islami, has appealed against the decision. We shall stand together and continue our struggle, so that in the end, the women of Pakistan should win on all fronts.