In a depressingly familiar sequence of events, reports have emerged of women across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa being barred from voting in the local government elections held on Saturday. This comes hot on the heels of a by-election in Lower Dir on May 7 in which not a single one of the 47,280 registered female voters was able to exercise her constitutional and democratic right to cast a ballot. Similar incidents were reported in the general elections of 2013, with parties traversing the length of the political spectrum uniting in their willingness to erect barriers to female participation in different parts of KP.

Justifications for the informal agreements and accords that have underpinned the ban on women voting across KP – concluded between ‘elders’, tribal jirgas, and local political party functionaries – have invoked the language of tradition and custom to defend the indefensible, trotting out the usual tropes about how the fabric of society would, apparently, rip apart at the seams if women were to visit a polling booth. These visions of apocalypse and civilizational breakdown have, inevitably enough, been accompanied by references to ‘honour’ that, once again, equate even the smallest increases in female mobility and empowerment with the erosion and emasculation of male authority in the extant social order. That this would be something that is undesirable is taken to be self-evident, with little thought being given to the possibility that both sexes would stand to gain in a society not so profoundly constrained by the logic of patriarchy.

Culture and religion are not necessarily synonymous but their juxtaposition in the discourse on female voting in Pakistan serves the purpose of validating restrictions on women through appeals to moral and ethical principles that are treated as being transcendental truths. After all, saying that God has asked you to do something is a good way to shut down any debate in Pakistan, and claiming that challenges to the social status arise due to the machinations of subversive alien influences links the issue of female voting to broader debates on Western imperialism and perceived animosity towards Islam.

What all of this masks is the fact that while religion and culture can and do play a role in facilitating and perpetuating discrimination against women, the fundamental problem is patriarchy. Men in Pakistan, like other parts of the world, control the economy, politics, and the public sphere more generally, with their power being buttressed by formal institutional mechanisms – such as the law – and informal customs and mores that permeate the myriad interactions and transactions that constitute society. Female participation in politics is discouraged not because it is inherently ‘bad’, but because it threatens the patriarchal edifice upon which male domination is constructed.

The link between patriarchy and gender discrimination in Pakistan is not difficult to discern. For example, the stigma that is often associated with women marrying partners of their own free will is reflective of a desire to police and regulate female mobility and sexuality, with the capacity to do this having implications on the ability to control transfers of property within and between families. Taken to its logical and unfortunate conclusion, this particular view of women and their place in society is the one that leads to widespread honour-killing, as well as other practices such as marriages to the Quran as well as the ‘marrying’ of minors to cousins at an early age. That there is a clear economic logic to many contemporary discriminatory practices can also be seen in the concept of dowry, whereby brides, often regarded as unproductive additions to the households they join, are expected to bring with themselves the means for their support.

That these, and other practices, are problematic is easy to see; this has not, however, prevented them from becoming part of the everyday societal lexicon in Pakistan. It is here that the important symbolic services rendered by formal and informal institutions becomes more apparent. For example, this week also saw the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) once again intervene in debates on divorce, claiming that women do not have the right to unconditional khula. This pronouncement follows earlier statements that have declared child marriage to be acceptable and suggested that men have the right to marry additional wives without the consent of their existing partners. Observers of the CII have often underplayed the impact of its clearly misogynistic claims, arguing that its purely advisory role limits its impact on the law and governance. While that might be true, the limited formal power of the CII does not impede it from contributing to broader debates in society that help to cultivate an atmosphere in which gender discrimination becomes both normal and legitimate. In a context where religion has increasingly come to dominate the public discourse in Pakistan, and where the Hudood and Blasphemy laws (to name just two examples) have clearly played a role in shaping discriminatory social attitudes towards women and minorities, it would be a mistake to believe the informal nature of the CII and, indeed, the tribal jirgas behind the ban on female voting, undermines their ability to influence society.

As such, perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this entire voting episode has been the spineless response of the major political parties including the PTI. While this conduct is not entirely unexpected from parties like the Jamaat which have long championed patriarchy as a means through which to win support for their conservative religious platform, the PTI’s capitulation to these demands is borne of little more than opportunism and petty political calculation at the local level. Evidence from around the world shows that political parties can play a leading role in the fight for women’s empowerment by selecting female candidates, campaigning for their rights, and challenging conventional patriarchal wisdom. The local government elections were an opportunity for more progressive parties in KP to take a stand against regressive practices that perpetuate discrimination against women. That no party was willing to take up this challenge in a meaningful way represents a tremendous failure on their part, and once again serves to illustrate the emptiness at the heart of the claims they make about bringing change to Pakistan.

 The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.

hassan.javid@lums.edu.pk