The Village In Punjab Where Women Are Forbidden From Voting

Tradition threatens electoral democracy and universal suffrage: not a single woman cast a vote in the 2018 General Elections in Mohri Pur

First published on The Friday Times, "The Village in Punjab Where Women are Forbidden from Voting" (Urdu version) was produced under the ANFREL Asian Media Fellowship on Election Reporting.

In deeply patriarchal communities, when male chauvinism decides a matter and deems it sacred, women have no choice but to obey. This is exactly what is happening in Mohri Pur, where girls go to school, the women go to work, and even engage in business – but do not vote.

Even though tradition is the culprit that disenfranchises the women of the village, general apathy among officials, including women themselves, prevents a solution to the problem.

Even laws encouraging women’s participation in elections proved to be of little use in persuading the women in this village to vote. According to the Election Act 2017, polling in a constituency will be declared null and void if the total votes cast by women are less than 10% of the toal. Yet, election officials often tend to declare the polling in the National or Provincial Assembly constituency that encompasses Mohri Pur valid despite women’s non-participation in elections.

Section 9, Chapter 2 of the Election Act 2017 says that if the turnout of women voters is less than ten percent of the total votes polled in a constituency, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) may presume that the women voters have been restrained through an agreement from casting their votes and may declare polling at one or more polling stations or election in the whole constituency, void.

In defending their decision, officials claim that the votes cast by the women of Mohri Pur would make no difference to the final result. However, activists say their votes can be decisive if the winning margin is narrow.

Mohri Pur is an ancient village in Tehsil Kabirwala, an administrative unit some 74 km from Multan in Pakistan’s Punjab province. It is located 15 kilometers north of Kabirwala city in the Khanewal district.

According to the 2017 census, there are 4,835 registered voters in this village of 9,014 people. Officially, the number of women voters has been static at 1,883 since 2002, the year in which their registration with the National Database and Registration Authority for national identity cards automatically gave them recognition as voters. The practice has since been discontinued.

Moreover, Mohri Pur candidates prefer defeat to what they call the dishonor of letting women vote. For instance, in the 2002 local government elections, former Union Council chairman Ghulam Mustafa Aulakh, an advocate, lost his ward by 150 votes. Had the women of his locality voted, he could have won. He did not bother upstage tradition for electoral victory. Instead, he upheld the custom that Mohri Pur’s men are proud of.

Residents believe that the practice of women not casting their votes goes back to 1946, when the village nobility decided to forbid women from casting their votes in elections, as they perceived it to be morally improper. It is believed that some even argued that electing members of the assembly was a man’s job. Since then, Mohri Pur’s women have been complying with the ban.

Figure 1: Voter details from UC-25

However, in 2015, a woman stood up for her democratic right and became the first woman from Mohri Pur to cast her vote in the village. Her name is Fauzia Qaiser. She voted in the 2015 local government elections, after ensuring security arrangements for herself and other women through a petition to the Lahore High Court’s Multan Bench. However, in the General Elections of 2018, not a single woman cast her vote at all four polling booths in Mohri Pur.

The 36-year-old Ms. Qaiser had the support of her husband Qaiser Abbas and the local media. She said her husband gave her the confidence to exercise her democratic right.

The village’s Aulakh Kamboh family traditionally has held the position of lamberdar – village headman – since independence. To know more about this anti-democratic custom, I spoke to Afzal Aulakh, the eldest son of lamberdar Aria Aulakh, who died recently. He said that although he did not know much about the origin of this practice, he knew that his forefathers were opposed to allowing women to vote.

Mohri Pur candidates prefer defeat to what they call the dishonor of letting women vote

Mohri Pur’s 88-year-old retired station master Malik Khadim Hussain said that the ancestors took this decision based on the circumstances that prevailed then, but even after they passed away, the Mohri Pur people continued to uphold the tradition.

Since independence, the village has undergone much social change. The literacy rate has increased to 60 percent due to the availability of education facilities in the village. Women go to work and take care of household and agricultural matters as well. The present-day Mohri Pur women know that if they wish to, they can vote. Yet, they too, seem to uphold the tradition.

Figure 2: Khadim Hussain claims that by tradition, women have avoided voting in elections since 1946

Ms. Qaiser said she believed that her vote would serve as an encouragement to other women to cast their vote. “Women constitute 52% of our society and people have adopted various tactics to keep this majority under their control. One such tactic is not allowing women to exercise their right to vote,” she said.

She did not vote in the General Elections of 2018 due to inadequate security arrangements. It is noteworthy that to date, no one has tried to intimidate her directly or indirectly. Perhaps, this is because she hails from an influential family.

Section 9, Chapter 2 of the Election Act 2017 says that if the turnout of women voters is less than ten percent of the total votes polled in a constituency, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) may presume that the women voters have been restrained through an agreement from casting their votes and may declare polling at one or more polling stations or election in the whole constituency, void.

In such situations, the ECP will investigate whether women have been prevented from voting and exercise its discretion to order a re-poll at a certain polling station or some of the polling stations, or the whole constituency. However, activists say that the ECP accepts the results of the polling stations concerned without taking into consideration the non-casting of women’s votes.

When asked, the ECP’s Additional Director General Shahid Iqbal said that the ECP accepts the results from Mohri Pur because the Commission is satisfied that the General Election results of the constituency would not be affected even if the women did cast their votes in a particular polling booth or division. This is especially true if the winning candidate was far ahead of his rival. He also said that at meetings that ECP officials conducted with Mohri Pur community leaders, they found no evidence of coercion or intimidation in preventing women from casting their votes. Mr. Iqbal said that the ECP was dedicated to addressing the issue of including women in the democratic process.

Punjab’s former Assistant Advocate General Rao Akram Khurram, an expert on election laws, said that the Election Commission, in interpreting Section 9, recognizes the losing candidate’s right to challenge the result, and could conclude that the results had been “materially affected” as a consequence of women not voting. In such a situation, the difference between the votes of the losing and the winning candidates would be compared to the number of women’s votes that, if cast, would have made the defeated candidate victorious. Elections could be held again in the constituency, he said.

Similarly, according to Punjab’s Local Government Act 2022, the contesting panels of Tehsil and Village Council Chairmen will secure general seats in proportion to the votes they get. With women not voting in Mohri Pur, this is a major disadvantage for the village as low turnout would mean lower representation in the Tehsil and village council.

Figure 3: If the women of Mohri Pur had cast their votes, the results of this election would have been different: Mustafa Aulakh.

Ms. Qaiser said that until the district administration and local elected representatives played their role in enabling the local women to vote, the women of Mohri Pur would have to remain deprived of their rights. She said that the Punjab government should assign the task of rectifying the situation to the members of the Provincial Assembly (MPA), because this was a non-issue for members of the National Assembly (MNAs).

Farida Shaheed, a world-renowned sociologist and the founding member of Shirkatgah, an organization promoting women’s rights, said voting was a form of a person’s freedom of expression and it cannot be restricted by anyone else. “Even if the women in Mohri Pur are following this tradition, they are not doing it happily,” she says.

She added that the ten-percent-women-vote condition in the Election Act should not only apply to the constituency, but also to every polling station in each constituency. To bring about the proposed amendment to the Act, she said that female parliamentarians were unlikely to play a significant role and, therefore, civil society groups working at the grassroots levels were pursuing the issue with the ECP.

Social worker and Khanewal District Council’s former member Bismillah Iram organized three meetings in Mohri Pur to create awareness about women’s right to vote, but they fell short of her expectations. In these meetings, it transpired that local women were willing to vote but they expressed the fear of the unknown as no woman had voted here, she said.

There have been many botched attempts to solve Mohri Pur women’s suffrage problem. In 2005, the district coordination committee conducted a campaign, but it proved to be an exercise in futility.

In another effort, ahead of the 2013 General Elections, well-known human rights activists such as Asma Jahangir, Hina Jilani, Farzana Bari, Sarwar Bari, and Rashid Rehman visited Mohri Pur to convince local men to allow women to vote. But on Election Day, no women turned up at the polling stations.

Figure 4: Women hitch a ride to adjacent areas of Mohri Pur to engage in door-to-door sales of their goods.

Shumaila Majeed, 26, said Mohri Pur’s girls who were married outside the village cast their votes at their new homes but “those who are in this village cannot cast their votes.”

Ms. Qaiser’s husband, Qaiser Abbas Sabir is an advocate of the High Court. He is also a renowned author and poet. He says that his ancestors may have been involved in the decision, but now it is just the community leaders’ stubbornness that prevents women from voting. “There is no written evidence to show the motives behind the decision.”

Recalling an incident at the launch of his book ‘Democracy under Siege’ at the Islamabad Press Club, he said a journalist taunted him by saying that a writer who was concerned about democracy belonged to a village where women were not allowed to vote. He said this motivated him to support his wife’s decision to cast her vote.

Coming back to his village, he organized meetings in collaboration with the district administration to persuade the local leaders to allow women to vote. At these meetings, the villagers promised to let their women cast their votes, but the outcome turned out to be the opposite. None of the women cast their votes.

Mr. Qaiser Abbas blamed the district administration, civil society groups and political representatives for not playing the roles that they should have.

“The district administration held a few meetings with the community on the instructions of the High Court and was content with what it did. According to the administration, men do not place any restrictions on women, but women themselves do not want to be part of the democratic process,” he said.

Figure 5: Women Empowerment Commission Chairperson Fauzia Wahab visits Mohri Pur to convince locals to allow their women to vote (2015). Credits: Ali Ayaz, Sujag.

Despite setbacks, civil society groups should continue their efforts to approach women directly to stress the importance of voting and the need for greater political representation, Mr. Qaiser Abbas said, noting that “the matter remains as it is” because of the lack of civil society action.

Raza Hayat Haraj, who had represented the constituency in the National Assembly, said that since the local tradition demanded men talk only to men, he directly spoke to the local leaders and tried hard to persuade them.

He said that after many failed attempts, he concluded that it was only up to the local leaders to decide when they would allow women to vote.

Spokespersons of mainstream political parties Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf and Pakistan People’s Party admitted that the issue could not be resolved due to a lack of interest on the part of local politicians and the local political nexus. The two parties pledged that they would continue their efforts to resolve the issue.

Ms. Qaiser said the district administration and the Election Commission should not release the results of polling stations if women did not vote.

“Such a measure will not only ensure the participation of women in elections and strengthen the democratic process. It will also bring more benefits in the form of development projects and government facilities to the village. Otherwise, she said she would be the first and probably the last woman to cast her vote in the Mohri Pur elections.

Figure 6: Fauzia believes that women have to stand for their rights. Pictured: Mr. Qaiser Abbas Sabir (L) & Ms. Fauzia Qaiser (R)

The custom that prevails in Mohri Pur not only distorts the will of the people and the democratic process, but also exists in violation of international conventions, activists point out. For instance, Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights underscores people’s right to be part of the government through universal and equal suffrage while Article 7 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women insists on women’s right to vote and contest elections.

For the women of Mohri Pur however, such conventions mean little to nothing. It is abundantly clear that promoters of democracy – both national and international – need to do much more to guarantee the franchise to the women of Mohri Pur.

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