From suffrage to representation: challenges face by women in Karachi

women in Karachi

By Syed Sibte Hassan Rizvi

KARACHI: Karachi, a city of vibrant diversity, presents significant hurdles for women when it comes to exercising their voting rights and seeking representation in the political landscape. Former MPA Sadia Javed advocates for a reserved 25% voting quota for women in any constituency to address disparities.

The feasibility of an online voting procedure has been dismissed by the Election Commission, emphasizing the need for political parties to actively engage and encourage women to cast their votes. Khush Bakht Shujaat highlights that as the feudal system dissipates, the women of the nation will rise.

The 2018 elections hold a memorable chapter for Yusra Salim, who, having married in 2017 and relocated from Qayyumabad to Nazimabad, faced voting challenges due to a lack of timely ID card address change. Urooj Fatima, a housewife in North Karachi, echoes these sentiments, expressing difficulties in balancing household responsibilities with the voting process. She advocates for an online voting mechanism for housewives.

Samina Bakhtiar of Nazimabad, a cleaner working long hours, laments the lack of time for personal activities, including voting. The broader issue spans across various classes, where women encounter challenges such as inadequate transport options and limited access to polling stations.

While there is no precise data on women working in households or different occupations, the Election Commission of Pakistan reports a significant increase in the overall number of voters, reaching 128,585,760 nationwide. In Sindh for the upcoming 2024 elections, registered voters have reached 26,994,769, with an increase in women voters from 995,4320 in 2018 to 1,238,2114.

The evolving landscape calls for addressing these challenges to ensure that women in Karachi, regardless of their backgrounds, can actively participate in the democratic process, casting their votes and contributing to the representation they rightfully deserve.

Aurat Foundation Report Highlights Barriers to Women’s Voting Participation

Mehnaz Rahman, the resident editor at Aurat Foundation, sheds light on the challenges women face in political participation. Despite the Election Commission’s efforts before the 2018 elections to register women and provide ID cards, the voter turnout remained low. Research conducted by Aurat Foundation and South Asia Partnership Pakistan in 2022 points to underlying factors such as patriarchy and societal norms.

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The report reveals that decisions regarding women’s political involvement are often dictated by men in households. Shockingly, 8.3 percent of men find it inappropriate for women to leave their homes to vote. Furthermore, 55 percent believe it is justifiable to prevent women from voting if their choice opposes the men’s preferences. Additionally, 43.4 percent feel that women should stay home if there’s a potential for conflict at the polling booth.

To address this, the Election Commission introduced a column in Form 14, completed by the presiding officer after voting. This column records the number of women visitors, enabling the Election Commission to assess female voter turnout nationwide and take legal action if numbers are disproportionately low. Mehnaz Rehman highlights the positive aspect that 11.74 million women are registered for the upcoming 2024 elections, indicating a reduction in gender disparity.

Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, President of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT), emphasizes that despite progress, only 40 percent of women vote on average. He underscores the need for comprehensive social-level initiatives to address these challenges.

Low Women Voting Rates in Karachi: A Struggle Despite 10% Turnout

While Karachi meets the 10% voting condition for a sizable city, numerous women face obstacles in exercising their voting rights. Issues such as the absence of household heads, busy household responsibilities, reluctance to visit polling stations, lack of permission, and various restrictions hinder women’s participation.

A study by the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN) confirms that women avoid polling stations due to overcrowding and unfavorable attitudes from polling staff. The distance of polling stations from homes further discourages women from voting. Women advocate for the Election Commission to explore options for simplifying the voting process, including online voting, to enhance accessibility and encourage their active participation.

Challenges Faced by Women in Political Participation: Insights from Political Leaders

Sharmila Farooqui, a prominent figure in the PPP and a former member of the provincial assembly, sheds light on the formidable challenges women encounter when contesting elections. She asserts that acquiring tickets remains a hurdle for women candidates, coupled with the financial burden of election campaigns. Funding constraints, often unmet by parties, hinder women from actively participating in elections. Additionally, women are typically allocated tickets in areas with minimal chances of victory, possibly serving as mere acquittals for political parties.

Farooqui emphasizes that women, whether voting or contesting, shoulder the responsibility of their homes, a societal norm that has seen minimal change over time. Despite challenges, she acknowledges an increasing representation of women in elections, particularly within her own party, the Pakistan People’s Party, which is actively providing opportunities to women.

Khush Bakht Shujaat, a former MQM member of the National Assembly, ties the plight of women in politics to the lingering feudal system’s mentality. Shujaat calls for societal transformation through land reforms, akin to the day when feudalism would end, envisioning women’s empowerment on a global scale. She credits General Pervez Musharraf for introducing reserved seats for women, a move not universally adopted.

Shujaat urges women to contest elections from their constituencies, emphasizing women’s effectiveness as administrators. Highlighting the need for accountability, she encourages women to actively participate in general seat elections.

In 2018, the Election Commission faced the challenge of less than 10% women voting in two National Assembly constituencies NA-10 Shangla and NA-48 North Waziristan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, prompting re-polling.

Election Commission’s Point of View

The Director of the Election Commission of Pakistan, Syed Nadeem Haider, dismisses the possibility of online voting. He stresses the Commission’s role in setting a 10% vote casting condition for women, urging political parties to take responsibility for mobilizing women to polling stations. Haider clarifies that this task falls beyond the Election Commission’s purview.

Concluding Statement & Suggestions by Former MPA

Sadia Javed, a former PPP member of the provincial assembly, delves into the urban population’s view of voting as a fashion trend. She notes the significance of political parties providing transport facilities for women but underscores the pivotal role of altering women’s mindsets about voting. Javed criticizes the Election Commission’s 10% vote casting rate for women, proposing an increase to 20-25%, considering the current women population of around 53%.

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