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In Pakistan town, men have spoken: No women vote

Sunday - 5/5/2013, 9:48pm  ET

In this Monday, April 29, 2013, Ruksana Ali, an activist from the Association for Gender Awareness & Human Empowerment enlists names of women for the upcoming elections in Mateela village near Sargodha, Pakistan. As the country gets set to vote in the upcoming nationwide election that will see a transfer of power from one civilian government to the next -- a first for Pakistan -- women still face an uphill battle to make their voices heard in the political process. (AP Photo/Rebecca Santana)

REBECCA SANTANA
Associated Press

MATEELA, Pakistan (AP) -- For decades, not a single woman in this dusty Pakistani village surrounded by wheat fields and orange trees has voted. And they aren't likely to in next week's parliamentary election either. The village's men have spoken.

"It's the will of my husband," said one woman, Fatma Shamshed. "This is the decision of all the families."

Mateela is one of 564 out of the 64,000 polling districts across Pakistan where not a single woman voted in the country's 2008 election. The men from this village of roughly 9,000 people got together with other nearby communities to decide that their women would not vote on May 11 either.

Next week's election will bring a major first for democracy in Pakistan -- the first time a civilian government has fulfilled its term and handed over power to another. But women still face an uphill battle to make their voices heard in the political process, as voters, candidates and in parliament, where they hold 22 percent of the seats in the lower house.

Women represent only about 43 percent of the roughly 86 million registered voters, according to election commission data. In more conservative areas like Khyber Paktunkhwa province and Baluchistan, the percentage drops even further.

In places like Mateela, the fact that men decide women should not be allowed to vote is a decades-old tradition. Some men say women don't have the mental capacity. Other times they don't want wives and daughters to leave the house. Some simply don't see the point.

At a recent gathering in the village, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Islamabad, activists tried to encourage the opposite. The Association for Gender Awareness & Human Empowerment, an independent group working to increase voter participation, met with residents, trying to encourage them to let women vote.

Mateela's men sat with male activists in a courtyard near the village mosque. Secluded behind a gate, the women sat on a concrete floor and listened to a female activist talk about the benefits of voting.

Yar Mohammed, one of the village elders, insisted it isn't a matter of discrimination. The problem, he said, is that the local polling station is mixed gender. The men worry that their wives and daughters will be harassed, so they want a separate women's station. In some places, but not all, polls are specified for men or women only.

"We stop our women from going to polling stations because we think if they do, men would tease them by staring or touching them," he said.

Mateela's women certainly want a political voice. They talk of their desire to see better roads, schools where their daughters can get an education and a reliable supply of gas for cooking and heating.

They don't directly defy their fathers and husbands -- but they do lobby them to change their minds.

One resident, Mohammed Shamshed, said the women in his family "come up to us and say, 'We want to vote.'"

"But we tell them that it is a collective decision," he said.

Rubina Arshad said things are slowly starting to change as men and women become more educated. "This is the tradition and the culture, from many, many years ago. We could not cast the vote," she said.

Another deterrent to women voting has been that many don't have the proper identification card, called a CNIC card. Historically, many men in conservative areas haven't seen the need to send their wives or daughters to get the ID card or haven't wanted to pay for it.

But activists say that has begun to change in recent years -- in large part because it makes more financial sense for men. Poor women who want to receive money through the Benazir Income Support Program, a government plan to give money to poor people, need a valid ID card. And many programs that give out aid to flood victims or people displaced in fighting in the tribal areas also require an ID card.

"These two have tremendously enhanced the registration of women," said Muddassir Rizvi, CEO of the Islamabad-based Free and Fair Election Network. "If they see an advantage of a relationship with the state, then they agree to things."

There are other encouraging signs as well, with more women competing in the elections.

In Pakistan, 60 of the 342 seats in the lower house of parliament, known as the National Assembly, are reserved for women. They are handed out to parties in proportion to how they do in the overall race, so women don't have to campaign publicly for them. But women can also run for the general seats, in competition with men on the campaign trial. In 2008, 64 women ran for general seats and 18 made it to the parliament.

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