In early 2013 I ended up in a situation rather naively which didn’t go so well. I was assisting an expert on Gender who was called in to propose a policy to Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf as it self-assuredly prepared to run the nation. After a presentation was made to Imran Khan, the party chief, he was happy to provide a commentary on the state of women in Pakistan which went like this: Women have 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 that premise on women is unsupported by facts. Women are in less need of respect than they are in need of mobility, resources, access to health, education and justice. Respect is one of those decorative words thrown around when you want to provide a justification of 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-demonized west.
An even bigger need above all others is the need for suffrage. Women need to vote to get representatives solve their problems, protect their vulnerabilities, provide them access to progress and to above all get them a fundamental right guaranteed to them under the constitution. This constitution is the same one both PTI and their coalition partner Jamat-e-Islami have vowed to uphold in Khyber Pakhtoonkwa province.
In this May parliamentary byelection in Lower Dir this was the number of women that were allowed to vote: zero. Upon investigation, it wasn’t that these women were attending an alternate 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 were turning them away. Mosques and jirgas in the area warned women from voting and cautioned men to ensure this of their families.
Many blame PTIs choice partner in governance: the Jamat-e-Islami. This party, which makes its anti-woman empowerment stance no secret, holds moots and rallies celebrating Hijab day without allowing any woman speaker address the attendees. Also the same party with a woman wing with events that have all male panels as evident on their Facebook page glamorizing woman on economic clutches. To them the ideal woman is the unseen woman, because they have no claim to public space. But the blame is misplaced. PTI’s performance on gender development is itself rather dull. There is also no women ministry in KP under PTI led government. A local paper points to a deal struck between both parties on women not voting, but even though the figures point to it starkly, it is mere speculation at this point.
The legal systems in Pakistan are equally ill-equipped to safeguard women rights. In what is astoundingly backward, the Peshawar High Court dismissed the petition of KP women voters. 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 preventing over 53,000 registered women from voting. Now where is the respect in that? At a gross scale is it disempowering for his province and his people.
As a master philanthropic leader, educationist and youth mobilizer, it is important for Imran Khan to work on this blind spot. Woman’s participation, and equal participation puts real value on the promises he made to the country – promises of brining equity to the underserved and underrepresented. I was also at the electrifying October Jalsa in Lahore that launched him to success where he spoke about bringing a change in our inheritance structures where women are not passed on inheritance. Women’s rights may be a moot point that he may think doesn’t deserve any urgency but it is one where his party’s basic character will be tested.
An election that violated the rights of its women registered 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 KP that man has to be Imran Khan.