PAKISTAN: Pakistan's Women Get Seats at the Bottom Table

Sunday, March 17, 2013
Southern Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 

Tanvir Zehra is one of thousands of women across Pakistan entering politics for the first time. Carefully adjusting her black headscarf, she wades into the crowd at the polling station, gently cajoling the hundreds of queuing voters to elect her to the town council at Bahawalpur, deep in the province of Punjab.
The military regime has been much criticised for throwing out an elected government 17 months ago, but it has also turned out to be the administration that is giving women a rare access to power, in the country's first local elections since 1987.

"I have brought people out of the trance of false promises," said Ms Zehra, 27, a barrister. "I told them that if I get to power I will solve their problems. I think I can win." All the local councils being created under staggered elections which run until August will have six out of 21 seats reserved for women. In the second round of elections, to be held last month, a sixth of the 61,990 candidates were women.

While the army has tried to stifle national parties, local elections are being trumpeted by the military leader, General Pervez Musharraf, as the start of grassroots democracy.

"If they [the military authorities] go ahead and complete this process I think it will be the single most important contribution of this government," said Rifaat Hussain, a political scientist at Islamabad's Quaid-i-Azam university.

The regime is coming under pressure to announce national parliamentary elections. Under a supreme court ruling Gen Musharraf must restore democracy by October next year, an order he has promised to follow.

Lying in the lower end of the Punjab, Bahawalpur is in one of the most feudal areas of Pakistan, where landlords are accustomed to holding the power and women rarely have a role outside the home.

"This is the first time women have been given guaranteed seats. The landlords have come to know that their grip will be slowly finished and soon you will see the results," said Tariq Qadri, who has worked on UN-run elections in Kosovo and East Timor and is now Bahawalpur's deputy election commissioner.

Not everything, however, is changing so quickly. In another polling station in the town centre the elegantly dressed Syed Moeed Shah, an English speaking landlord with 250 acres of wheat and cotton, is sure he will be elected the council's nazim, or chief.

"I want to serve the nation and I can give my time," he said. "In Pakistan most men don't have time for politics they have so many problems." Candidates are supposed to be independent but Mr Bukhari quickly confessed his loyalty to the prime minister deposed by the army, Nawaz Sharif, and his Pakistan Muslim League. He is the party's Bahawalpur vice-president. "I am in the PML until death," he said.

In the more conservative North West Frontier Province Islamic clerics and village elders got together in many areas to stop women contesting for seats. Only one woman in the entire province stood for election as a council nazim. After a meeting in a mosque in the town of Swabi, the clerics persuaded a local judge to ban women from standing.

There are other problems. All candidates have been allotted symbols which voters recognise and stamp to cast their ballot. Influential landlords such as Mr Bukhari secured the crescent moon, a popular Islamic symbol carried on the Pakistani flag.

Others were less fortunate. "No one wants the banana or the radish," said Mr Qadri of the election commission. "They don't like the axe or the mango much either."

In Bahawalpur the deputy district commissioner, Tahir Hussain, sits in an armchair looking over his trimmed lawns and sounding anxious.

Since 1940 the deputy commissioner has been the senior figure in the area, responsible for law and order and raising land revenue, reporting directly to top government officials. From August Mr Hussain will report to the elected district nazim.

"I am not very good with politicians," he admitted. "If the nazim has his own agenda and it is negative then it will be a problem. I wonder if he will want my house too?"