The recently held by-elections for the seat of Provincial Assembly Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Lower Dir (PK 95) repeated once again the disturbing trend of barring women from voting. This does not come as a surprise because it is mere repetition of what happened in different constituencies of KP and the Punjab in local bodies elections of 2001 and 2005, general elections 2002, 2008 and 2013. Irrespective of which party they belong, all candidates unanimously pledge as a routine, either verbally or in writing, to disenfranchise women from electoral process.

Political parties being rational players, many a times fall to the trap of expediency, trampling over their ideological leanings under the hard boots of their pragmatism. This is why one sees unnatural bedfellows in different constituencies for local bodies elections, like PMLN and PTI and left leaning Awami Workers Party and Jamaat-e-Islami. But where does this pragmatism go when it comes to women’s vote? Women voting for you mean more people voting for you. Cutting down on your vote is hardly pragmatism. But wait, cutting down is perfectly rational if you know it’s not your vote.

Lower Dir being a constituency in Malakand Agency under Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (PATA) is isolated from the rest of KP in terms of communications network and other accessibility. Religious right wing is the only communicating entity here. Thanks to the policies of the security establishment of providing patronage to these elements, they have captured people’s psychology through religious rhetoric by denying them the opportunities of exposure and access to information. Prayer congregation five times a day, the pulpit every week, the religious power of issuing decrees and political power through Jirgas have increased their influence to an extent that anyone who competes with them has to look and sound more regressive.

It is convenient to demean political parties calling them ‘hypocrites’ and ‘incompetent’, but is essential to appreciate the relationship between them and obscurantist religious parties who have been given state patronage in terms of protecting their interests and propagating their narrative. The parties, victim of state-sponsored negative propaganda would only pose feeble or no challenge to a far more influential and protected opponent. Secondly, the local leadership of all these parties comprises exactly the same mindset as of the religious parties.

The negative discourse about women’s rights is common between these religious parties and the mouthpieces of security establishment in media and intelligentsia. For example, the candidates in these areas are commonly heard labeling women’s rights as a western agenda that would destroy our culture and values. Also, all women who come out for their rights are getting money to malign our culture. Isn’t it familiar? Isn’t it the same narrative that we hear from clean-shaven TV anchors kowtowing the establishment against the rights activists? When this goes from national to local level, it becomes far more devilish and destroys any slight prospects for marginalized sections, especially women, to exercise their legitimate rights.

To me, Gullana Bibi (late) who decided to contest elections in 2013 from the remote and underdeveloped district of Tank (PK 69), was an agent of a silent revolution. A woman who never went to school, demonstrated that she was educated enough to realize her potential and refuse to bow down to the man-made ‘tradition’ of remaining powerless. Just a day before the elections, two armed persons visited her who introduced them as members of the local Taliban faction and threatened her of murder if she contested elections. Pressurized by her family, she had to withdraw from elections.

Shad Begum, another activist from KP filed nomination papers for local bodies elections. The male contestants tried to demean and humiliate her in every election rally. Her pictures circulated with a question: do you want to make your daughters and wives like Shad Begum? Who doesn’t observe purdah, who stays outside her home for nights, who works in an office like a man and who travels alone? She was demonized as a pro-west woman who was out to destroy the Pakhtun culture. She had only two options, withdraw or lose the elections amid this vilification campaign.

In the recent case, the local leaders had verbally agreed to stop women from casting votes under the garb of religion and Pakhtun culture. It is strange that the same people from the same parties did not bother about this ‘religion’ and ‘culture’ when under Musharraf they had to nominate their women for the Senate, National and Provincial Assemblies as well as Local Bodies. Even stranger is the fact that they are unbothered when the same women come out to work in the fields and to fetch water from far-flung places. Their religion and culture is only threatened when women exercise the power of selecting or rejecting them. The religious right wing knows that in their case, it is the latter. If allowed to vote, religious parties might lose their seats at the hands of women.

To my pleasant surprise, PTI is the only party that has provided women a platform for having dialogue with local male leadership. The Women’s Wing of the PTI in Dir and adjacent areas is far too active to let it happen silently. They are posing the challenge to the ages old, time-consolidated patriarchal power. During the PTI sit-ins last year and various jalsas in Karachi etc., we saw these women extremely active and participating enthusiastically. PTI owes to them at least one thing, the breaking of the shackles of oppressive male leadership. But what happened in PK 95 was extremely painful. PTI announced its support for Jamaat-e-Islami. But when I was looking at the pictures of this joint press conference of PTI and JI, I could not miss the smirk on the face of PTI’s Ayesha Gulalai who was sitting with JI’s Amir Sirajul Haq to announce the support. He had to have it from a woman. Divine justice.

Another pleasant surprise came from ANP. Despite its local male leadership agreeing to barring women in PK 95, ANP’s indomitable Bushra Gohar came forward, supported by her party’s central leadership thankfully, and approached Election Commission of Pakistan formally. The Commission has taken notice and the Chief Election Commissioner has asked Chief Secretary, Election staff and the candidates to submit explanations by May 14. Hopefully the election would be declared null and void if it is proven that women did not cast their votes. It can only happen if the ECP ensures that the votes are gender disaggregated. It would become much better if the parties agree to women’s demand of legislating to declare the elections null and void if less than 20% of women exercise their right to vote. It was discussed in the last tenure of the parliament as well but unfortunately, parties could not agree on it.

The problem is, every institution that has to make these decisions, is male dominated. Women are too fed up to remain silent on this patriarchal consensus. Let this frustration not become an avalanche. Lets us address it now.