Published: Monday, May 6, 2013

Pak women face battle for the right to vote

Saba Ismail

Saba Ismail

Fears over the safety of women voting in next week’s elections in Pakistan are rising after letters have been circulated in regions of the country warning men not to allow their wives, sisters and daughters out to the polling stations.
In an increasingly fraught and violent runup to the 11 May vote, leaflets are appearing stating that it is “un-Islamic” for women to participate in democracy.
Now a group of young female activists are planning to challenge what they call the government’s inability to protect women’s right to vote by organising their own protection teams at individual polling stations in tense and volatile Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, one of the four provinces of Pakistan, formerly known as the North West Frontier Province.
Saba Ismail, 23-year-old founder and director of Aware Girls, a peace group for and led by young women to train girls in leadership skills, said they already planned to monitor 30 polling stations with volunteers who would support women who came out to vote and hoped to reach many more.
Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year-old activist for girl’s educational rights who became an international figure after being shot and badly injured in a Taliban assassination attempt last October, was one of those trained by Ismail’s group.
“For the 2008 elections, many polling stations were torched and women were told it was vulgar for them to cast a vote. This time we want Pakistan to have a free and fair election and for women to be able to vote in secret, not be told who to vote for by her family.
“Recently on Pakistan TV we had three female politicians in the studio for a debate. They were asked questions like ‘Should women really be allowed to work because they take more time to come to the office because they put make-up on?’”
Ismail said she was disappointed at the resurgence of the extremists’ campaign to stop women voting. Her group has had to move offices twice because of threats made against it.
“War means men get angry and their aggressive behaviour is taken out on the family,” Ismail said. “For women they are used not as a way forward for peace but as a strategy, a means to produce more soldiers for more war. In Pakistan women have internalised all into their minds that they are lesser beings. But I believe change will come,” said Ismail.