Last month Pakistan’s elections marked the first time a civilian government had ever completed its five-year term in office. But in the Taliban-dominated areas bordering Afghanistan, women find it difficult to vote. Tribal traditions and local politicians conspire to exclude women from the polling booth – or to make their choices for them. The Aware Girls are a team of local young people who fight for women’s rights and against religious extremism. On election day, they ran all-female teams of election monitors at polling stations, to ensure that women got to vote. Here’s what they did, in the words of Aware Girls founder Gulalai Ismail. She is 26 years old.
5 am: It is Pakistan’s big day, the election day. There are rumours of violence all over the country. My parents wanted me to stay at home or in my office to supervise my team of 80 young women election monitors. I had to convince them that it’s important to be with the team in these life-risking situations, to give them strength and courage. Everyone is in the office by now, and ready to leave for their polling stations. We say a warm goodbye, as none of us are sure if we will come back alive.
Today we will monitor elections in three districts of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, with a team of women who have been carefully trained by us for observing the polling process at female voting facilities. Our role is to see that women voters are being treated properly. Some of us will observe at polling stations, others like me will tour the stations to check that all is well with the observers. Those of us on the road all day face a greater risk of getting caught up in any violence. But we are brave. It is an important day for all of us. We have to go to protect women’s right to vote.
7 am: I reach my first polling station. Our observers are already present, in their assigned polling places, with their checklists to record how things go. The issue we face is that at election time, community elders may restrict women from casting their votes, under the influence of religious groups or political parties. Or these forces may even compel the election staff to stop any women from casting her vote. Those who do vote may be told by male family members which candidate to vote for.
8 am: There are already long queues of women in the polling stations. It looks like many women want to express their opinion through their right to vote.
For many of our observers, too, it is their first time to vote – to witness the polling process and to stand for the right of women to vote with their own free will. It is not easy for the observers to come out and spend the whole day in polling stations, in a culture which restricts women’s mobility. For some, their families were not allowing them, but they said clearly to their families, “It is the time to bring change in Pakistan, it is our chance to play a role in the change – and we will.”
One of our observers reports that her polling station has been closed down under pressure on the presiding officer from local elders and political party workers. The polling station was shut and women were not allowed to vote. The elders argued that it is shameful for women to come out and vote, that self-expression and decision-making are shameful for women. We report this incident to the Election Commission of Pakistan.
1 pm: Our team of 10 mobile observers has completed its first round of visits to female polling stations. I call everyone for an update. I learn that some polling stations have been closed down and women can’t vote. At some there have not been enough security officers inside the stations to manage the crowds of women, which has led to small disputes that temporarily stopped polling. We saw political parties mobilising voters inside the polling booths – buying votes. We report this to the Election Commission.
We also saw that in spite of heat, thirst and threats of violence, women were out there for their vote, they were desperate to have their say in making the history of their country.
6 pm: Some of us have completed a second round and some a third round of visits to the polling stations. By evening the job has become tough, the crowds of women have increased, the polling staff are exhausted – and the voter mobilisation inside the polling stations has reached its peak, causing chaos. Our security manager warns me to leave the area where I am monitoring stations, as there is a threat of violence. I decide to stay and stand with my team.
One thing that we hear from all our observers is that their presence has an impact. They say it empowers the women voters, and stops people from violating the rules.
10.30 pm: In my last station, which is a combined one for men and women, the female polling staff didn’t wait for the counting of votes. They have left, because it is judged inappropriate for male and female staff to be in the counting process together, and because it is already dark. I decide to witness the process of counting myself, as part of my observation task. I am the only woman in a room of 30 men – polling staff and polling agents. But I do not sit in the corner. I am part of the group, observing every step.
11 pm: The vote count is complete. All our observers, despite the cultural limitations, waited in their polling stations until counting was completed.
12 midnight: I collect reports and copies of results from all the observers and head back to Peshawar, my home. My family is relieved to know that I am coming back safe. And all my team is feeling brave, empowered, and contributors to the women’s right to participation in democracy.
Gulalai Ismail is a founder of the Aware Girls project, our peacebuilding partner in Pakistan.