In Pakistan’s northwest, young women buck tradition to monitor historic vote

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — They call themselves “Aware Girls,” and they consider themselves foot soldiers who will help safeguard a historic vote that could change Pakistan.

Based in this militancy-hit provincial capital in the northwest, the group is carrying out a risky mission as the first citizen election observer team consisting of young women. They deploy Saturday for an election that will mark the first time an elected government transfers power to another in Pakistan, a country ruled by the military for much of its 65-year history.

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The monitors, who range in age from 12 to 27, say they are facing the threat of violence and cultural bias against women in their conservative province, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Some say they have faced resistance even from their families.

“My father didn’t want me to do it, but I want to bring a change to Pakistan,” said Surriya Khan, 20, a college student. “Somebody has to.”

She is one of dozens of women working for gender equality in this Muslim-majority nation through Aware Girls, a group founded 10 years ago and supported by various international donors, human rights groups and health advocates.

The “girls” will stake out women-only polling stations Saturday. In recent training sessions, they have been taught to recognize violations of campaign laws and efforts to intimidate voters or tamper with ballots.

“They are young women doing their duty to their country,” said the group’s chairperson, Gulalai Ismail. “They are risking their lives.”

The girls and women are energetic and full of determination, and many of them say they share the same sentiment: hope. They bring up the word again and again, in a way that’s reminiscent of President Obama’s groundbreaking 2008 campaign.

For them, many voting in their first election, democracy is now a given. Some came of age during a democratically elected government’s tenure, rather than a military strongman’s rule, and became adults as Pakistan’s Parliament completed a full five-year term for the first time. They say they expect this democratic transfer of power to become Pakistan’s new normal.

“We are happy and very hopeful because democracy is evolving in Pakistan, and people are building allegiance to their country,” Ismail said.

But threats are being made against the group. Near the city of Mardan, some men opposed to female voters have formed a group called “Aware Muslims,” which has distributed images of Ismail’s Facebook posts in an effort to spread their anti-women message.

“Our people cannot even digest the idea that a woman can be a decision-maker within the family, so they don’t want a woman to be a decision-maker in the state,” Ismail said.

Pakistan provides separate polling places for women, who account for 37 million registered voters out of a 180 million population. There are 48 million men registered to vote in the election.

In 2008, when the most recent national election was held, no women turned out at 564 of 28,800 polling stations. Some women’s polling stations were torched, Ismail said.

The 26-year-old daughter of a human rights activist, Ismail started the organization when she was 16. She is sending observers to 100 polling stations in three districts and has a total of 120 young women participating in the project.

They will be paid about $30 for a day’s work, supported by a grant from the Australian High Commission, she said.

During a break from a day-long training session held this week at a guesthouse in Peshawar, Sundas Shah, a 20-year-old student, said of the ballot: “This time, we have a ray of hope in our hearts.”

Everyone is aware of the risks. With 115 people killed in bomb and gun attacks on political parties since April, the election is being called the most violent in Pakistan’s history.

“The threat of violence is always near,” Ismail said as she was leaving the group’s headquarters.

She got into a car to head to a training session, and the mountains on the Afghan border, which edges Pakistan’s loosely governed tribal areas, loomed in the distance.

“We are very near to the tribal areas, so we hear the missiles and bomb blasts every day,” she said. “The biggest problem that we are facing is increasing militancy and religious extremism.”

The group has expanded beyond Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and last year began providing services to women and girls in southwestern Baluchistan province. This year, it plans to expand to neighboring Afghanistan.

Much of the organization’s time is spent reaching out to rural women who do not have access to a telephone or the Internet; the group’s members plan events and work through local contacts to establish credibility. Often, their success depends on how effectively they can convince husbands and fathers they are not a threat.

“They think promoting women and promoting pluralism is against Islam,” Ismail said.

Election observer Marjua Siddiqui, 22, described her parents as broad-minded people who taught her there is no difference between a daughter and a son. But her mother worries.

“She said, ‘Listen, daughter, you don’t have to be so bold,’ ” Siddiqui said.

 
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