As the campaign picks up in Pakistan-administered Kashmir or Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) for the assembly polls, scheduled on Sunday, there are fewer women in the fray.
Although the region boasts comparatively a healthy sex ratio, out of a total of 700 candidates, just 20 women are contesting the polls.
Out of a total 4.04 million population, the region houses 2.06 million female and 1.98 million male population, as per figures available with the Planning and Development Department.
Three candidates have been fielded by the newly-formed Jammu Kashmir Democratic Party (JKDP), two each by Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N), and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) led by Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, and one by Azad Jammu Kashmir Muslim Conference of former Prime Minister of AJK Sardar Atiq Ahmad Khan.
As many as 12 independent women candidates are also testing their lot.
Interestingly, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), whose slain leader Benazir Bhutto served twice as Pakistan’s Prime Minister, has not fielded even a single woman candidate inviting criticism from the political circles.
Over 3.2 million eligible voters will cast their votes to elect 45 members for a five-year term in a 53-member assembly. There are eight seats reserved for women, religious scholars, technocrats, and overseas Kashmiris.
Out of 45 general seats, 12 are reserved for the Kashmiri refugees settled in Pakistan.
In 2016 polls, out of 423 candidates, only eight were women who contested elections on the general seats. Of them, only one woman managed to win.
Noreen Arif, a PML(N) candidate from Muzaffarabad, is the only woman politician who has been elected to the state assembly twice through direct elections in 2011 and 2016.
“I can’t defend my party’s decision to completely ignore its women workers,” Farzana Yaqoob, a former lawmaker, and the PPP leader said while speaking to Anadolu Agency.
“It’s the party that gave the first woman prime minister to the Muslim world. It should have nominated at least a few women candidates on merit to contest the elections,” she said referring to Benazir Bhutto, who became the first woman prime minister of any Islamic country in 1988.
– Women equally competent
She said women politicians are equally “competent” and capable of winning the polls if the political parties fully back them.
Echoing Yaqoob’s views, Nabila Irshad, who heads the JKDP observed that all the major political parties in AJK, “practically” discourage” women’s inclusion in the electoral process.
“We are not demanding any favor. Our only demand is merit. If women are on merit then they should be encouraged to contest elections,” said Irshad whose JKDP has fielded the highest number of women candidates.
She is contesting from Sadhnoti district.
Defending the party’s decision, Imtiaz Zafar, a senior PPP leader said that contesting elections is already a tough job, and for a woman candidate it turns out to be even “tougher” keeping in view the peculiar mountainous nature of Kashmir.
“Apart from that, every party wants to clinch as many seats as possible. And for that, they have to choose potential, resourceful, and winning candidates. They do not award tickets to a weak candidate just to maintain the gender balance,” he said.
Rejecting Zafar’s contention, Nabila Irshad described it as a lame excuse.
“It’s just that the so-called big political parties do not have democracy within themselves. They do not hold intra-party elections. That’s why they do not want the genuine middle-class political leadership, especially women to come forward,” she said.
“Even on reserved seats (for women), the party leaders nominate their relatives,” said Irshad.
Yaqoob, who won from Poonch district in 2011 but lost in 2016, said although contesting polls is tough and time-consuming, especially for women, it is not impossible if families remain supportive.
– Money power makes participation difficult
Tariq Naqash, a Muzaffarabad-based political analyst said besides the strenuous electoral process, the involvement of money makes the participation of women difficult.
“Traditionally, women, especially from middle-class have had a lesser role in active politics in Azad Kashmir. However, the (Kashmiri) society as a whole does not discourage women’s participation in politics,” he said.
Yaqoob, the PPP leader, however, said it will take some time for the region to accept women in the leadership role while referring to centuries-old conservative society, where women have a lesser role in political decision-making.
Taqdees Gilani, the president of the PTI’s women wing in AJK claimed that women’s participation in politics has improved.
“Situation is much better as far as political awareness (among women) is concerned. They are all set to play their role in the upcoming elections,” said Gilani, who teaches English in a local college. She expected more women candidates in the next elections, keeping in view the increasing awareness in the region.