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Pakistan Goes to the Polls: The Promise and Potential

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Pakistan goes to the polls on May 11, 2013. The promise and the potential of a fresh beginning -- for the moment -- feels heady. The Afghan war has taken its toll on Pakistan. Can the country reinvent itself with a clear eye on the challenges and opportunities it faces in South Asia -- at the age of 65 in its new political incarnation -- even as it is flanked by Afghanistan and India?

Growing up in India, Pakistan seemed like the bright successful shiny country bordering a rather poor India. It seemed that success for Pakistan was just around the corner, even as India struggled with its many millions of impoverished masses. But history has turned out differently -- and now Pakistan is the struggling member of the family.

Chess Board of Politics: Pakistan has straddled between democracy and dictatorship since its inception in 1948. It now has multiple, often feudal based, political parties associated with a handful of political leaders who have played musical chairs for over 50 years. The names and faces of the politicians are sparse, recurring -- alternating dictators and democrats. Gallup poll predicts 41 percent and The Economist's most recent survey predicts that 59 percent of the vote will go to Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N). The article also commends Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif for "getting things done." But politics is not easy business anywhere and certainly not in Pakistan.

Modernity vs. Antiquity: These polar opposites define the struggle for the soul of Pakistan. Modernity entrains education, employment and empowerment for women. Antiquity clings onto age old taboos pertaining to women's roles, segregation, and subservience -- all of which cumulatively and negatively impact the place, the position and the power of women in Pakistani society. Reconfiguring the Muslim women's role in the spirit and teaching of Islam, where "Paradise rests beneath the feet of your mother" could catalyze a paradigm shift in Pakistani society.

Pakistan has a population of 180 million, with 37 million women and 48 million men registered to vote. But in reality, Farzana Bari, human rights activist and university professor at the Quaid-i-Azam University "estimates that at least 11 million eligible women will not be able to vote simply because authorities have not granted them national identity cards." This is a travesty. In India, the voting gap between Muslim men and women in Kashmir is 5 percent. But In Pakistan, the voting gap is expected to be 25 percent.

Conservative Pakistani women conform to a traditional code of conduct, wearing the burqa or hijab, being accompanied by a male guardian in public at all times, and mostly staying within the confines of the home. The election commission tried to overcome these social/cultural taboos by passing legislation in parliament requiring at least 10 percent of the women's vote for candidates running for office, but the measure failed.

Some mullahs deny Pakistani women the right to vote on the grounds that women's voting is un-Islamic. Where did these Mullahs get these ideas, when women participated in the council that chose Abu Bakr, the first successor, to Prophet Mohammad in eighth century Arabia?

The challenges of modernity versus antiquity for women are uniquely challenging for women curtailed by social taboos and Taliban imposed edicts in the North West frontier region. The Talibans's code of conduct, for example, prohibits a married woman from voting for a male elected representative -- but also precludes women candidates running for political office.

In the tough neighborhoods of the North West frontier's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa districts, the ban on women voting in the election will be hard to lift. It is in these areas where old customs don't yield easily to new norms, new economies and equal rights for men and women -- even in today's democratic Pakistan.

Marriage and divorce in tribal Pashtun cultures are loaded issues -- even in local elections. This was clear in Battagram. An election was declared null because women were threatened with divorce if they voted. In the rerun, the threat of divorce was lifted and women participated successfully.

Badama Begum, a 33-year-old school teacher who worked the 2008 elections says not a single woman came to vote in Maardan in the North West Frontier Province - even though the government provided women election aids. Despite regressive restrictions, I am in awe of the tenacity of Muslim women.

Look at Khalida Bibi, a 39-year-old housewife from Dargai in the North West. She was eager to participate in the 2002 and 2008 elections - until she ran up against local opposition which stopped her. But make no mistake, Khalida Bibi, a determined Muslim women, shows her metal when she says: "I hope I will succeed this time because the election commission does not want to ban women from voting."

But it does look like the national election will be held -- and perhaps fairly. For the first time in Pakistan's 65-year history, an elected government will hand over power to another elected successor. The newly elected leaders will need to confront three critical challenges: First, to rescue Pakistan -- often viewed as a "failed state" - from a collapsing economy and a challenging security situation. Second, to make peace with India across the border, and deal head on with the dangerously unresolved "Kashmir" issue. If these flash points are eliminated, the Indo-Pak cross border bridge building will start -- laying the foundation for Indo-Pak economic cooperation, growth and prosperity between these two vital countries which together constitute 20 percent or 1/5 of the the world's population.

Finally, to create a positive paradigm shift in Pakistan, a critical ingredient is to educate, employ and empower Pakistani women -- give them a shot, give them the opportunities and see them flourish. The women can strengthen the social fabric, the economy and the state of the nation with their vital contributions.

Khadijah's daughters is a blog by Shahnaz Chinoy Taplin, board president of Invest in Muslim Women, a non-profit project of the Global Fund for Women. Invest in Muslim Women focuses on the economic empowerment of Muslim women, justice and peace. The blog is inspired by Khadijah, Prophet Muhammad's first wife and the quintessential role model for Muslim women. She was the first convert to Islam, the first Muslim woman entrepreneur, a globalist and a feminist.

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