Mohri Pur in Khanewal district might look like any other small town in Punjab but there is one big difference in this town — women are expected to stay at home on the day of the election here.
As a part of an age-old tradition, women of the town are not allowed to exercise their legal right to vote. Locals say it was their forefathers who decided that women should not vote, adding that this has been going on since Independence. “No one is forced to abstain from voting, they all do it out of sheer respect for our forefathers,” said an elder of the town.
In 2015, Fauzia Talib defied all odds to become the first woman to vote in her town. Before the 2015 polls, Fauzia and her husband approached the high court to allow her to vote. They asked the court to provide her security as she feared that she might face resistance from the residents of the town. The court ordered the local administration to provide security to Fauzia and she finally exercised her constitutional right under police protection.
Drawing inspiration from Fauzia’s courage, many women of the town hope that this time around things will change and they will be able to exercise their constitutional right. Their hopes are largely fueled by the changes to the election laws.
There are over 2,500 registered women voters in the area and as many are unregistered.
The Election Commission of Pakistan has declared that at least 10% of voters in each constituency must be women, otherwise the results will be voided.
Nearly 20 million new voters have been registered, including 9.13 million women, the commission says.
This is another step in women’s long battle for rights in Pakistan that is often accused of doing little to address the gender imbalance of the 2013 elections, in which male registered voters outnumbered female by some 11 million.
The shift also sets the stage for a stand-off in conservative rural areas, like Mohri Pur.
“They perhaps think that women are stupid…or there is an issue of honour for them,” says 31-year-old Nazia Tabbasum.
Village elders banned women from voting decades ago, claiming that visiting a public polling station would “dishonour” them.
“I don’t know where their honour goes to sleep while they lie down at home… as their women work in the fields,” Tabbasum adds, scathingly.
Fear of violence
“The main reason is that these are the areas where women are not allowed to even come out of the house,” says Farzana Bari, a gender expert and rights activist.
The ECP’s rule change should improve things — though Bari warned that within each constituency there could yet be pockets where women are prevented from voting.
There is plenty of precedent: in 2015 men stopped women from voting in a local poll in Lower Dir. The ECP promptly cancelled the result.
In 2013 a court ordered the arrest of male elders over banning female votes in the previous general elections.
In Mohri Pur, women do work outside the home and some receive education, yet the vote ban holds.
Many of the younger women under the Jambolan tree are eager to exercise their rights — but not all.
Widow Nazeeran Mai, 60, says it is not “custom” for women to vote. “(T)here is no one to stop me, but still I don’t vote because nobody else does,” she says.
Others fear violent reprisals.
“If they go to vote alone, there will be violence and unrest, the men will abuse and beat them, so it’s better not to go,” explains 22-year-old Shumaila Majeed — though she remained determined to get as many women to the polls “as possible”.
Even Mohri Pur’s lone female councillor Irshad Bibi — elected under laws stipulating at least one woman on every village council — has never voted.
When asked why, she called on her husband to speak for her.
“Our elders had set up this custom… We stand by this today,” the husband, Zafar Iqbal, tells AFP.
“In any civilised democracy, half the population ought not be disenfranchised,” says newspaper columnist Hajrah Mumtaz.
But local politicians say they are helpless.
“I can’t break their tradition… the people of this village have to decide when they will allow women to vote,” says Raza Hayat Hiraj from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf.
Bismillah Noor, a member of the district council who arranged the meeting under the Jambolan tree, says the men are stubborn.
“I’ve been trying since 2001 but nobody listens to me,” she says. “In 2005, men told me their women don’t want to vote so I should not force them.”
Another attempt in 2013 also failed.
The determination Noor hears from the village women now gives her a glimmer of hope — but progress is fragile.
Fauzia, who was ostracised for voting in 2015, is unsure if voting on July 25 for politicians she believes will do little for the area is worth the backlash.
“I will see,” she tells AFP.