Casting vote

Imaduddin Ahmed | The Friday Times Aug 29, 2005

I’ve experienced living as an “other” growing up, first in England, and later in some parts of the USA – I would feel the dehumanizing stares walking down the street, in restaurants, hotels or in the pub while with friends. To me, England’s St George’s cross symbolized skin-head racism and football hooliganism, and the Union Jack and Stars and Stripes (post 11th September) supremacist jingoism.

But the Pakistani jhanda didn’t mean that to me, except perhaps at cricket matches, where ex-pat desis are all about showing off their “Paki-pride”. The flag symbolized hope and optimism; of people being able to envision a national community that they could identify with. The white stripe in the flag serves to remind us about our responsibility of maintaining a brother and sisterhood to our non-Muslim minority population and to acknowledge their claim to OUR nationhood.

My first Pakistan Day since my move to the motherland in December was a day that I wanted to feel hope in envisioning a Pakistan I could be proud to be a part of, but it served to teach me that just as waving St. George’s Crosses, Union Jacks and Stars and Stripes incited a certain fear and loathing in the other, Pakistan celebrations incited terror in Pakistan’s “other” – the woman.

Naively, I took a couple of foreign friends, both women, to enjoy the Pakistan celebrations with the people of Pakistan, and listen to the successful Pakistani pop-industry in the non-elitist environment of the Race Course Park of Lahore. The result was at groping, a pile-on, ripped kameez and tears. My friend wrote later,

‘I thought I would find humanity and spirituality in the East, but here I am in Pak-istan, in a ‘Muslim’ society where attacking two women in the middle of hundreds of people is considered normal and unpreventable. And I refuse to understand the logic that prisons women indoors, just because men have uncontrollable animal instincts! One needs to do something. We need to do something.’

Hers is a political call for the women of Pakistan to reclaim the public space and redefine what it means to be a Pakistani woman – from the meat that the man on the street sees and gropes, the object of honour that stays obediently and submissively at home, the land-losing nuisance, to the human being with a will of her own that a man will be forced to respect as an equal in public spaces.

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In response to an interview where NWFP’s provincial cabinet deputy leader, Siraj ul-Haq told The Telegraph, “We give respect to our women and we know their rights very well. It is in the best interest of women to remain inside the home,” Shad Begum, mentee of murdered woman councilor Zubaida Begum of Dir, shared sentiments similar to my friends, “Women of our area have been facing a lot of problems. They don’t have access to education, nor do they have basic health facilities. What have our politicians done to improve their lot? Nothing – except confining them to the four walls of their houses.”

What do women politicians do to improve women’s lot? I had the chance to talk with women councilors in workshops across the country. Raana Siddiqi, district councilor for Hyderabad told me about her initiative in building a family park, a women’s library and building a computer skills training vocational centre. Khadija Bibi, an illiterate woman married to her vegetable shop-owner husband at the age of 13 because her family had murdered his brother, comes from a village in Union Council 22, district Pakpattan. She described the situation, “Our people looked at women like cattle. Women would be dragged away at night and there were threats of them being kidnapped. I couldn’t bear the cruelty women faced. Even though my family locked me indoors for three days to stop me from contesting, I knew that God wanted me to run. I wanted to end the cruelty and torture.”

Although Khadija Bibi hadn’t to date set up any institutional mechanisms to maintain better law and order in her village, the new respect and authority she had in her community allowed her to intervene in an incident where men were going to beat the husband of a raped woman to death. She felt that her presence as a councilor in the village had reduced public incidences of violence against women. She initiated and made sure that a telephone exchange was brought to her community, and approved a Rs 3 lakh budget for drainage and sewage and Rs 4 lakh for the development of a girls?school.

56,753 women filed nominations to contest reserved seats. Faisalabad witnessed a full 13 member panel of women candidates contest the reserved and unreserved councilor, Naib Nazim and Nazim seats, and encouragingly, they represented a broad strata of society ?one is a traditional birth assistant, another a business woman, one a principal of a private school, another a medical doctor, a couple of senior politicians, a couple of domestic worker and a tailor.

As I toured the Gujranwala election polls for the first phase, I was inspired to see the commitment of women candidates and voters, especially from the lesser privileged backgrounds. The very high voter turn out (over 60%) I saw at polling stations in UCs 38, 61, 25 and 46 was indicative that ordinary citizens felt like they had a stake in the political process, and that women had a space to seize the opportunity for change.

I probably witnessed election rigging at UC 38, polling station 3, District Council Complex; and witnessed Chief Secretary of Punjab Karman Rasul, DCO of Gujranwala Chaudhry Masud and Regional Investigation Officer Tariq Hanif Goya, escorted by their 18 armed police elite men and women wearing ‘Anti-Terror No Fear’ t-shirts, deal with the situation worryingly incompetently. According to candidates of opposing groups, the Presiding Officer had introduced a fifth ballot box without showing the public that it was empty. She explained that the other four ballot boxes had become full and so she had to introduce the fifth box, but her story didn’t hold as the other four boxes were still being used to cast votes. The government entourage was ready to leave satisfied when the PO told them that everything was running smoothly, until my monitoring team intervened to have the complainants heard. Instead of telling the PO to immediately isolate the fifth box, our government officials told the PO that the box would be challenged after the voting day was over, and allowed votes to go into that box.

In my tour of Lahore in the second phase of the elections, the story of the day was that NADRA and the Election Commission had botched up the democratic process by providing voter lists that didn’t list voters’ names. As a result, my own monitoring team was disenfranchised. Combined with voter apathy (reasons given by privileged Lahoris as, “Yaar, I wanted to enjoy my holiday and stay cool with the AC,” to “What difference does my vote make anyway?” to “All the contestants are thieves and are corrupt. I’m not going to vote,” the Lahore polling stations had disastrous voter turn outs, like an estimated turn-out of 20% by noon in UC 81.

Hearing the stories of my colleagues who monitored stations in Punjab, Sindh, NWFP and Balochistan, the elections were far from air and free? and for the President-General and Prime Minister to declare them so should widen their credibility gap with the public, the international community and businesses. But what was encouraging, even in apathetic Lahore, were those inspiring voters, committed to the cause of active citizenry. Active citizenry is what will give rise to an accountable government in my lifetime ?accountable governments don’t fabricate themselves. An 80 year old woman, lying her head on a table at Government High School Islamia in UC 3, Lahore, was ready to faint after waiting two hours in the heat to vote. She wasn leaving until her name was found in one of the lists in one of the polling stations. I have good reason to remain hopeful for a Pakistan I will be proud of. Women participated in this election in many areas, though not all, as both impassioned voters and contestants ?the ther?was serious about acknowledging her self and working for her part in the system of power.

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A mob of men break into a women’s polling station alleging rigging
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Armed police escort the mob out

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An empty polling station in Gulberg Town, Lahore

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Waiting to vote
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