By Aisha Sarwari
June 6, 2015
In early 2013, I ended up in a situation rather naively which didn’t go so well. I was assisting an expert on gender issues who was called in to propose a policy to the PTI as it self-assuredly prepared to run the nation. After a presentation was made to Imran Khan, he was happy to provide a commentary on the state of women in Pakistan which went like this: women receive far more respect in our culture than in any Western culture. Those policy recommendations died a thousand deaths on that forum mostly because there was no will to take them seriously but also because this premise on women is unsupported by facts. Women need mobility, resources, access to health, education and justice. Respect is one of those decorative words thrown around when you want to provide justification for not letting women decide what they want for themselves. No thank you. We would rather have the rights. Kind of like they are in the much-demonised West.
An even bigger need, above all others, is the need for suffrage. Women need to vote to get representatives to solve their problems, protect their vulnerabilities, provide them access to progress and above all get them a fundamental right guaranteed to them under the Constitution. This Constitution is the same one both, the PTI and their coalition partner the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), have vowed to uphold in Khyber-Pakhtunkwa (K-P).
In the recent by-election in Dir, the number of women who were allowed to vote was zero. Upon investigation, it wasn’t that these women were attending an alternative social gala to not have shown up to vote, in fact some did, but a report claims that there were men at the gates of polling stations who were turning them away. Mosques and Jirgas in the area warned women not to vote and cautioned men to ensure this. Many blame the PTI’s partner in governance: the JI. This party makes its anti-women empowerment stance no secret. Its women-wing events have all-male panels, as evident on its Facebook page. To the JI, the ideal woman is the unseen woman, because she has no claim to public space. But the blame is misplaced. The PTI’s performance on gender development is itself rather dull. There is also no women ministry in K-P under the PTI-led government.
The legal systems in Pakistan are equally ill-equipped to safeguard women’s rights. Pakistan’s performance is dismal when it comes to women’s political enfranchisement. The annual Gender Gap Index by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum this year ranks Pakistan at 85 out of all countries in political empowerment. Just next door, India is ranked at 15.
The women in Pakistan deserve better and the women in Dir particularly deserve better leadership. Ultimately, the buck stops at Imran Khan’s party for failing to ensure that over 53,000 registered women were not able to vote. Now, where is the respect in that? At a gross scale, it is disempowering for his province and his people. As a master philanthropic leader, educationist and youth mobiliser, it is important for Imran Khan to work on this blind spot. Women participation and equal participation puts real value on the promises he made to the country — promises of bringing equity to the underserved and underrepresented. I was also at the electrifying October jalsa in Lahore in 2011 that launched his success where he spoke about bringing a change in our inheritance structures so that women’s inheritance rights are protected. Imran Khan might believe that women’s rights is an issue that doesn’t deserve urgency but it is one where his party’s basic character will be tested.
An election that violated the rights of its registered women voters cannot possibly be valid because it breaches the contract between those women and the state. Somebody needs to have the maturity to right that wrong. For the women of K-P, that person has to be Imran Khan.