Gender And Hope In Pakistan's Elections

"If an educated girl is coming to the field of politics and fails to respect the party or tribal structures, she cannot be a candidate"

Gender And Hope In Pakistan's Elections

Balochistan alike rest of the country would be going through the General Elections scheduled on 8th February, 2024. 

As per the detailed released by the Election Commission of Pakistan, in the province of Balochistan out of 442 National Assembly candidates 14 are women, while out of 1,282 provincial assembly candidates 38 are female. 

Out of 5.3 million voters 56.15% are male while 43.85% are female voters would be casting their votes on election day.

While Balochistan boasts a rich topography and a culturally diverse population, its potential in human resources remain largely untapped due to patriarchal structures and women's marginalisation from political and decision-making roles. Despite being the largest geographic unit of Pakistan, Balochistan is sparsely populated, bordered by Afghanistan and Iran. However, the region grapples with ongoing conflicts, including the Baloch separatist movement, religious extremism, sectarian violence, and military operations, fostering a patriarchal, tribal, and religiously influenced society where women are seldom seen as leaders. Although women hold various roles in society, such as housewives, doctors, engineers, domestic workers, and activists, their representation in political spheres is disproportionately low compared to men, contributing to the region's backwardness and lack of awareness required for progress in the 21st century.

Sana Durrani, hailing from a middle-class background and former provincial office bearer of the Pakistan Peoples Party, experienced firsthand the challenges women face in political participation. Denied a party ticket for the election, she defied the party's decision and ran independently for the provincial assembly seat PB-43 in Quetta city. Durrani's platform prioritises women's rights, youth involvement in policy-making, religious harmony, ethnic diversity, employment, health, and education.

"People see me strangely – they wonder how a woman is contesting as an independent candidate in a society where leadership is perceived to be for men alone. Sometimes they throw down my posters, billboards and stickers because of their patriarchal thoughts", says Sana Durrani, herself a Pashtun, who is a feminist, civil and human rights activist.

Having a long record of rights activism and expertise in women’s affairs and gender development, Sana Durrani is saddened by the limitations imposed by patriarchal constructs keeping women away from decision-making and politics. But she is motivated by those who have a different view about change in human behaviour through women leaders.

"I am motivated by many others who are supporters and get inspired from my campaign speeches – they have called on me and vowed that they will vote for me because they see their daughters and sisters in me and they are fed off the traditional political parties and elite electables", says Sana Durrani.

Serving in the higher education system and intelligentsia, Dr Shahida Alizai, an associate professor at the University of Balochistan and a Baloch herself, perceives restructuring the hardcore patriarchal system as a daunting task. She believes that women within the system can gradually shift male-dominated perspectives through an evolutionary change rooted in awareness and gender equality.

"We live in a patriarchal and religious society as a whole, where respecting these tribal traditions is considered sacred. So, every female candidate who is contesting as independent or on party quota or reserved seats is expected to follow the culture and tribal codes," says Dr Shahida Habib Alizai, associate professor in the department of Gender Development studies University of Balochistan, Quetta.

"If an educated girl is coming to the field of politics and fails to respect the party or tribal structures, she cannot be a candidate. Or if she resists the system, she is named and shamed because those who are in the power corridors never let their women become equal and go for pro-women policies and procedures that will lead to a feminist constitution based on equality irrespective of gender, cast and creed," says Alizai.

Dr Alizai sees a glimmer of hope that external pressure from the intelligentsia, media, and human rights organisations will eventually compel the elite political system in Pakistan to become inclusive.

"Still I am hopeful that society is getting developed due to pressure from media, civil society, NGOs, and human rights organisations who have been spreading awareness among women and girls to go and stand for their equal rights in the patriarchal society of Balochistan and the rest of Pakistan," says Alizai.

"I think an evolutionary revolution is needed: we the women should keep in mind that the patriarchal structures are the cause of our oppression and once we reach parliamentary seats, then we can convince our fellow male party members, elites, and tribal elders that women are equal human and they can lead society in a more logical way. Women are heroes, if we look human history they have been leaders and they are even now contributing to different sectors of life from science, technology, research, health, education, and economic sectors equally. Then why shouldn't they be leaders in political houses?" asks Dr Alizai.

Malala, named after the Pashtun Afghan hero Malalai of Maiwand, a figure from Afghan history leading the Anglo-Afghan war, embodies the connection between identity and history from the 19th to the 21st century. Malala Kakar, herself a Masters scholar at the Media Studies Department University of Balochistan, is a critical thinker who keenly feels the oppression faced by women and girls, recognising it as a cause of collective misery.

"The system is capable of doing everything; it has the power, resources, and all the means to engage women in every field of our society. Providing quotas for women is a positive step towards enhancing their representation in the political process, but it often functions more like bringing in puppets," says Malala.

"Participating as candidates in elections will involve women more in the political process, and they can lead female voters in. Women at home need to see them on the front lines. Female candidates need to interact with the women in their constituencies."

"As a female candidate, she should certainly focus on a meaningful issue that has had long-lasting effects: the lack of education, which results in a lack of awareness. The major issue I see is that females lack awareness in various fields of life. They are more focused on internal matters rather than being informed about the world around them."

Malala noted when asked about current happenings and trends, their [women and girls] knowledge is minimal. She is asking that women should have access to the current trends in development and be independent to decide for themselves without any interference from the traditional political corners.

"The timeless solution is to provide them with education, which is the key to raising awareness about the knowledge existing in the world. It's not just about integrating them into the workforce; it's about granting them their fundamental right to information".

"Whether or not they join the workforce, education will ensure they are well-informed about the country's circumstances, which will enable them to actively participate in the decision-making process. Every female candidate should recognise the privilege of being educated, as education opens the mind. The crucial aspect is the mindset, and addressing this is essential; otherwise, the damage of 76 years cannot be reversed by only providing jobs or basic necessities."

"It is crucial to empower the women in our society through education, making them self-sufficient in knowledge, thinking, and decision-making. Then we will have a democracy for all which will guarantee our rights, equality, social justice, and development, otherwise, it's impossible."

The Hazara community living in Quetta holds a significant population in two seats of the provincial assembly constituencies. As a targeted community for decades in the horror of sectarian violence, they have been terrorised, and their young generation sees democracy as essential for the rights of their masses. Kalsoom Hazara sees democracy as a source of public voices for the solution of their issues.

"We should have an inclusive society free of discrimination based on gender, religion, and sectarian cards played. Those who have the capacity and vision of legislation for the development, peace, and harmony of the people should be voted for. Emotional vows are misleading, and we should vote for a cause."

She noted that the youth are a significant voting force across Pakistan and this class of society should be aware of the impact of politics and be enlightened with ideas respecting harmony, peace, and prosperity, as development cannot exist without peace.

Living in a room, Shakira Bibi is a transgender guru. She complains that none of the candidates or parties has asked for their votes. She respects democracy and believes that it is a system where voices are heard and everyone is given a say. She hopes for a day when there would be a debate in the assembly on the rights for the transgender community.

"We are nomads, we are from one province but living in another as our adopted home. The Election Commission of Pakistan should register our votes and give us the chance to cast votes like the rest of society. As our families and loved ones don't accept our beings, we have no one. Therefore, the government is the only hope for us to be considered equal humans and its children," says Shakira. She then continues:

"We hope that our country's prosperity grows and those elected on 8th February respect our rights in these forums for which they are contesting as MPAs, MNAs, and Senators. We need education, health, shelter, and employment like other Pakistanis. But sadly, none of the candidates made their way to our apartments, and this shows the collective political culture that isolates us because of our gender."