Some months ago, a 20-year-old boy, Danish Ali, came into headlines when he fatally shot his older sister, Asifa Noreen, 32, in Taxila, a town about 15 miles west of Islamabad, because she had voted in the local elections against his will. Danish had apparently ‘forbidden’ Noreen from voting. This one incidence explains why women’s participation in political activities in many parts of Pakistan is weak. This should be an eye-opener for the rulers who always chant the mantra of women empowerment but actually do nothing to make it a reality. They should know that women empowerment is actually the expansion of freedom of choice and action to women.
“Women hold up half the sky,” said Mao Zedong, the great Chinese leader. One wonders though whether women are even given half of what is due to them in our society. We always claim to emancipate our women and provide them a status equal to that of men. But, we fail to realize that women empowerment implies control over resources and decisions and the freedom to live life without any type of coercion and stereotypical gender norms. An empowered woman is better equipped to critically analyse her environment and to exercise control over decisions that affect her life. The idea of empowerment manifests itself at all levels of interaction.
In 1944, Pakistan’s founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah said:
“No nation can rise to the height of glory unless your women are side by side with you; we are victims of evil customs. It is a crime against humanity that our women are shut up within the four walls of the houses as prisoners.”
But, the state of affairs in Pakistan is disappointing especially when we see the widening gap between the numbers of male and female registered voters in the country which indicates that we are not willing to give women even a small share of their due rights. This is a worrying trend.
The Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN) has revealed that the difference in male and female voter registration widened from 10.97 million in May 2013 to 11.65 million in September 2015. However, in the absence of an up-to-date population census report, the possibility that these numbers may not be telling the entire truth cannot be ruled out. Perhaps, the gap has widened even further in the years since the last census — held in 1998 — but has gone unrecorded because a large proportion of addition to the female population has remained all these years, willingly or under duress, out of NADRA’s cover. One only hopes the government would strictly adhere to its promise to hold the head count in 2016. It is, indeed, impossible to plan, project or propose any socioeconomic scheme based on equity without an approximate and latest estimate of the country’s population, including its gender-wise and age-wise divisions.
No nation can hope to attain a modicum of civilised level of existence without taking proper care of its basic asset — mother and child. But if we do not know how many mothers, mothers-to-be and children there are to be taken care of, it is next to impossible to plan for their adequate welfare and allocate enough funds to execute these plans successfully. Issues relating to women are not limited to mother and child care only. They are multiple and diverse. These range from lack or inadequate availability of basic necessities for women to their role in social and economic spheres still being determined by a male-dominated society, part of which, especially the feudal and tribal sections, still treat women as objects.
With economic progress, judicial and police reforms, and sensitisation of media and civil society towards the problems of women, one can expect things to improve meaningfully. However, no matter how enlightened the men of our society become, their approach to the problems that women face in their day-to-day life would still be male-oriented. That is the reason why it is necessary to create enough space for women to participate in the legislative process. In order to create such a space, reserved seats were allocated to women in view of societal handicaps that discouraged them from contesting against male candidates. But this provision was introduced on the assumption that in due course, women would feel encouraged to contest elections on an equal footing against their male political counterparts.
However, this is not happening. There are many reasons for that. Perhaps, they would feel more reassured to go out and seek votes for themselves if the voter population was to reflect the genuine numerical strength of the genders in the country, which employing the rule of thumb that many informed analysts have used, estimated to be almost 50/50. NADRA must try to unveil the remaining female population that has so far avoided its reach. Next, it is the responsibility of the Election Commission of Pakistan to see that the gap between the male and female registered voters is reduced to at least near zero by the next general elections. Also, political parties should seek out their female supporters and initiate campaigns to get them registered as voters so as to be able to not only enhance the parties’ chances of victory in the next election but also to ensure that women are not left behind in the women empowerment process that is gathering momentum on the back of ongoing campaigning by the civil society and the influential media.
The writing on the wall is clear that women’s political empowerment is fundamental and their socio-political leadership is inevitable, and it is hard to imagine a constructive and sustainable democratic change in Pakistan, unless women are included in the decision-making processes at all levels of governance. That per se is ‘women empowerment’.