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Fighting for the woman's vote in Pakistan

Meet Aware Girls, the Pakistani 20-somethings battling fundamentalism for democracy

A group of women, some as young as 12, were out in force last weekend, monitoring female-only polling stations at the Pakistan general elections after leaflets were circulated declaring it ‘un-Islamic’ for women to vote.

Saba Ismail is the 23 year old founder of Aware Girls, the peace group behind the “protection teams”, which was formed in 2002 out of a seminar on so-called ‘honour killings’. The group mentored Malala Yousafzai – the 15 yr old school girl, activist and now Nobel Prize nominee shot by the Taliban last year for speaking out against their aggressive anti-equality stance. It’s a brave move, and one that’s completely justifiable. In the run up to the elections, Aware Girls has been forced to move offices, twice, following threats from extremist groups. Taliban forces also made public threats to three political parties, while on Friday May 3rd a representative from the leftwing Awami National party was shot and killed with his 3 yr old son in Karachi.

In the eyes of the law, women are eligible to vote. The problem lies with certain political parties, religious groups and communities, who Ismail says, don’t believe women should have any role in democracy.

“Especially in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, which borders with Afghanistan and has tribal norms and values, women’s participation in political rights are violated and curbed,” explains Ismail, referencing the torching of women’s polling stations during the 2008 elections. “It’s considered a man’s job to take part in processes which are linked to decision making. It’s become a tradition in some areas that women do not take part in the balloting, and it is often considered vulgar for a woman to come out of the home and vote.”

Aware Girls allegedly witnessed 10 misdemeanors during their monitoring sessions. They included instances where women’s votes were, Ismail says, directly “influenced”. Stories were also relayed back of armed men only allowing their specific party/candidate to enter polling stations. She also spoke of bribing and ‘vote selling’. 

Social media carried many accusations of wrongdoing, too. But then in a country where TV rules and online activity is owned by the young, it's not difficult to see why things may have looked a little shady when Imran Khan, the 'youth favourite' in an election the media had dubbed the 'youth election' (over 66% of the Pakistani population is below the age of 30) failed to emerge victorious.

Despite the scare mongering (AP reported that men in one village had just ‘decided’ their women shouldn’t vote) women did make an appearance, with turnouts ranging from 6% in rural areas to 60% in more affluent parts. But it’s a fact that corruption and dishonesty is rife in Pakistani politics. The wealthy are the ones in power – in 2010, the now re-elected Nawaz Sharif was estimated to be worth $1 billion. While Al-Jazeera recently ran a news story criticising the main political parties for failing to follow through on their promise to improve the unfit state of girls’ education.

But as Ismail crucially points out, it’s the first time a civilian government in Pakistan has even completed its five-year full term and handed over to another. ”It’s a step towards a more progressive state, a milestone in the history of Pakistan,’ she says, before concluding: “I can see a positive change in the country regarding female rights. They are violated on a daily basis… but I strongly believe in the power of women.”

Shockingly, this weekend Zahra Shahid Hussain, the senior vice-president of Imran Khan's Pakistan's Movement for Justice party, was shot and killed outside her home on the eve of a partial vote re-run. Khan called it a "targeted act of terror," and blamed it on the opposition, tweeting that Altaf Hussain had publically threatened Khan's party. "Zara Apa's murder has further strengthened PTI's resolve to stand up against criminals and terrorists!"