The 44 percent: Will women turn Pakistan's political tide?


Pakistani women walk past as Pakistani army soldiers stand guard during a door-to-door voter verification campaign in Karachi on Jan. 29, 2013. The door-to-door verification of voters in Karachi was ordered by the Supreme Court after complaints about irregularities in enrollment of about three million people for the upcoming election.


Rizwan Tabassum

KARACHI, Pakistan — The campaigning is over. Starting at 8 a.m. tomorrow, Pakistan's citizens head to the polls to cast their ballots in landmark national elections. The results, say pollsters, are anyone's guess, and will depend heavily on voter turnout.

So who will be the group that turns Pakistan's political tide? For the first time, it could be women.

More female voters have now registered to cast their ballots than ever before in Pakistan's short history. According to the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA), the number of women officially eligible to vote has increased by a whopping 86 percent over the last three years. The nearly 40 million female voters now registered account for about 44 percent of the overall electorate, NADRA says.

But their participation in Saturday's vote, crucially, isn't promised. Though women have had the right to vote since Pakistan’s independence in 1947, historically voter turnout among them has been low.

In the past, activists have said that the largest obstacle to voter registration is that many women, especially in the country's rural districts, don't have proper identification cards with which to register — a problem with its roots in gender inequality. In rural areas in particular, where social norms are more traditional, many men don’t see any reason to pay for their wives' and daughters' identification.

A popular cash-transfer initiative in Pakistan, the government's Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP), has changed that. BISP gives poor women who possess ID cards about $10 every month in the hopes that the women will be able to invest the money in work that gets them out of poverty for good. Many women have sought IDs in order to be eligible for the funds, and for the last several years, identification paperwork has automatically included voter registration.

A NADRA spokesperson offered another reason for the substantial increase in registration: For the past year, on the recommendation by the Election Commission of Pakistan, Fridays have been designated as female-only voter registration days, allowing women an environment free of sexual or other harassment to complete the process. Also introduced were 12 full-time, women-only registration stations, established across the country.

But will these women exercise their new power? It's customary, even in Pakistan's largest cities, for women to seek the permission of male relatives before leaving the house, even for something as simple as a shopping trip. As the security situation in Pakistan has deteriorated, many men hesitate to allow their wives and daughters to venture out to the polls.

While the BISP has been successful making women eligible to vote, the organization hasn't come up with a system for safely getting women to polling stations. Safety on voting day is in the hands of the government and the election commission.

If Pakistan's "44 percent" vote, who will it be for? Anecdotal evidence suggests many women will exercise limited agency even in that choice. Women in lower income neighborhoods and rural areas, especially, have told local media they'll simply vote for ther husband's choice of candidate.

A first crack at democratic transition, indeed.