Balochistan's Women At The Polls: Tradition, Democracy And Voting Struggles

According to Universal Elections (UDP), 60% of Pakistani women did not vote in the last general elections

Balochistan's Women At The Polls: Tradition, Democracy And Voting Struggles

Balochistan, the largest province of Pakistan, has a rich tapestry of diverse cultures, traditions, and histories. Yet, beneath this diversity, a common thread binds the women of Balochistan – the struggle to exercise their right to vote. Despite being aware of the electoral process, a significant number of women find themselves unable to cast their vote. To unravel this mystery, we delve into the lives of women across different districts, including the provincial capital, Quetta.

Mariam, a 25-year-old aspiring journalist from Quetta, grew up amidst the fervour of political discussions in her household. Her father, an avid advocate of democracy, instilled in her a deep appreciation for civic engagement. However, as the election day approached, Mariam found herself at a crossroads. The societal expectations of her role as a daughter, conforming to traditional norms, conflicted with her fervent desire to exercise her democratic right. Despite her education and awareness, the weight of cultural expectations pressed down on her shoulders. In Mariam's struggle, the clash between modern aspirations and age-old traditions is witnessed, encapsulating the broader conflict faced by many women in urban Balochistan.

According to Universal Elections (UDP), 60% of Pakistani women did not vote in the last general elections.

The provincial commissioner of Balochistan had himself admitted that there are no identity cards and more than 500,000 women votes cannot be registered – moreover, the turnout of women is also very low in the province.

The constituency-wise percentages of women voters' turnout in the 2018 provincial assembly election in Balochistan reveal a nuanced picture of gender participation in the democratic process. With a total vote cast of 1,899,565, the election saw a 45.29% overall turnout, indicating a significant portion of the population actively engaging in the electoral process.

Breaking down the numbers further:

The number of men's votes was 1,184,651 – constituting 62.4% of the total votes cast.

The number of women’s votes was 714,914 – representing 37.64% of the total votes cast.

These figures underscore a notable gender disparity in voter turnout, with men significantly outnumbering women at the polls. The reasons behind this gap are complex and multifaceted, rooted in societal norms, cultural expectations and systemic challenges that hinder women's full participation in the democratic process.

The disheartening trend of low women voter turnout extends beyond the provincial assembly elections to the national assembly constituencies in Balochistan during the 2018 elections. Out of the 16 constituencies, a stark contrast is evident, with only one constituency recording a relatively higher turnout of 45%, while a concerning six constituencies experienced less than 35% women voters' participation.

Alauddin Khilji, regional director of Aurat Foundation, believes that electoral laws need to be further improved for women empowerment. In his view, a minimum turnout of 30% of women should be made mandatory at the general meeting. Similarly, the quota of reserved seats for women in all assemblies should be increased from 17 to 33%.

He says that by amending the Election Act, for political parties it should be made mandatory to issue at least 15% of tickets to women candidates in general seats.

"Half the election expenses of women candidates should be borne by the political parties. Ensure full support at the local level for election planning, voter and polling training. Similarly, the security deposit for women candidates should also be reduced," he added.

Caretaker Provincial Minister Shania Khan fully agrees to increase the quota of women in parliament to 33%. She said that it is everyone's responsibility to include the weaker sections of the society, especially women, in the political process. Women empowerment will not be possible without the participation of women in decision making.

Fatima, a 30-year-old mother of three from the remote district of Chagai, personifies the challenges faced by women in rural Balochistan. Living in a close-knit community where patriarchal norms dictate every aspect of life, Fatima's daily existence is characterised by a delicate balance between tradition and personal agency. The struggle to participate in the electoral process becomes not just a battle against societal expectations but also an internal conflict against ingrained beliefs. Fatima's story sheds light on the resilience required to challenge the status quo, highlighting the need for interventions that not only empower women but also transform community attitudes.

Gwadar, a bustling coastal town with dreams of economic prosperity, provides the backdrop for Ayesha's story. Ayesha, a 28-year-old entrepreneur, represents the emerging class of educated and ambitious women seeking to break free from traditional constraints. Despite having the support of her family, Ayesha faces subtle yet significant challenges in a community where a woman's role in decision-making is often marginalised. As Ayesha contemplates her role in the upcoming elections, her journey becomes emblematic of the changing dynamics within Balochistan's evolving socio cultural landscape.

Dr Khan, a seasoned sociologist with a deep understanding of Balochistan's societal dynamics, draws attention to the intersectionality of gender roles and socio-economic factors. In her research, she explores the impact of educational disparities, economic conditions, and regional variations on women's political participation. Dr Khan advocates for holistic interventions that consider the broader context, emphasising the need to engage not only women but entire communities in reshaping cultural narratives.

Sana Malik, a passionate activist working tirelessly on the streets of Quetta, provides a human face to the struggle for women's rights. Through her grassroots initiatives, she shares stories of resilience and empowerment. Malik's work involves organising awareness campaigns, educational workshops, and community dialogues, addressing the root causes of low female voter turnout. Her interactions with women from diverse backgrounds in Quetta showcase the power of local initiatives in effecting meaningful change.

The enigma of low female voter turnout in Balochistan is a multifaceted challenge that demands a nuanced approach. Personal narratives, expert insights and statistical evidence converge to paint a comprehensive picture of the sociocultural barriers that hinder women's participation in the democratic process. As Balochistan navigates its political landscape, addressing this issue is not just an obligation but a crucial step towards building an inclusive and representative democracy. The silent voices of Balochistan's women must no longer be silenced, but rather amplified to resonate across the mountains, valleys, and deserts, ensuring that democracy is truly for and by all.