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Women's Rights

Defying local ban, women in Punjab village vow to vote in general elections

Women in Mohri Pur hope to exercise their right to vote, overturning a decades-old ban by their own men.

AFP

Locals in Mohri Pur, Pakistan, discuss the ongoing issues surrounding how village elders banned women from voting decades ago, claiming that visiting a public polling station would "dishonour" them. [SHAZIA BHATTI / AFPTV / AFP]

MULTAN -- Men barred women from voting in the village of Mohri Pur near Multan sometime around 1947. The women have obeyed ever since -- until this year, when changes to Pakistan's election laws and women's attitudes could shift the dynamic.

At least, that is the hope of many women meeting beneath a Jambolan tree in the village, its shade protecting them from the blazing sun.

Whether the men watching angrily as the women speak to AFP reporters will allow them to follow through when the nation goes to the polls on July 25 is another question.

"They perhaps think that women are stupid... or there is an issue of honour for them," said 31-year-old Nazia Tabbasum.

Village elders banned women from voting decades ago, claiming that visiting a public polling station would "dishonour" them.

10% of voters must be women

The women have the support of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), which declared that at least 10% of voters in each constituency must be women; otherwise, its results will be voided.

Almost 20 million new voters have registered, including 9.13 million women, according to the ECP.

It is another step in women's long battle for rights in Pakistan, though it does little to address the gender imbalance of the 2013 elections, in which male registered voters outnumbered female by 11 million.

The shift also sets the stage for a stand-off in conservative rural areas like Mohri Pur.

There is plenty of precedent: in 2015 men stopped women from voting in a local poll in Lower Dir. The ECP promptly cancelled the result.

In 2013 a court ordered the arrest of male elders in two other northwestern districts over preventing female votes in the previous general elections.

Fear of violence

In Mohri Pur, located in Punjab Province, women do work outside the home and some receive education, yet the vote ban holds.

Many of the younger women under the Jambolan tree are eager to exercise their rights -- but not all.

Widow Nazeeran Mai, 60, said it is not "custom" for women to vote. "[There] is no one to stop me, but still I don't vote because nobody else does," she said.

Others fear violent reprisals.

"If they go to vote alone, there will be violence and unrest, the men will abuse and beat them, so it's better not to go," said 22-year-old Shumaila Majeed -- though she remained determined to get as many women to the polls as possible.

Even Mohri Pur's lone female councillor, Irshad Bibi -- elected under laws stipulating at least one woman on every village council -- has never voted.

When asked why, she called on her husband, Zafar Iqbal, to speak for her.

"Our elders set up this custom... We stand by it today," he told AFP.

Breaking traditions

"In any civilised democracy, half the population ought not be disenfranchised," said newspaper columnist Hajrah Mumtaz.

But local politicians say they are helpless.

"I can't break their tradition... the people of this village have to decide when they will allow women to vote," said Raza Hayat Hiraj from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party.

The men are stubborn, said Bismillah Noor, a member of the district council who arranged the meeting under the Jambolan tree.

"I've been trying since 2001, but nobody listens to me," she said. "In 2005, men told me their women don't want to vote so I should not force them."

Another attempt in 2013 also failed.

The determination Noor hears from the village women now gives her a glimmer of hope -- but progress is fragile.

In 2015, one woman, Fouzia Talib, became the only one in Mohri Pur to vote in local elections. She was ostracised.

Now, she is unsure if voting on July 25 for politicians she believes will do little for the area is worth the backlash.

"I will see," she said.

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