Women’s view of politics: how free—or crucial—is their vote?

By Zubeida Mustafa

DURING the last few years women in Pakistanhave emerged asone of the major foci of party campaigns. Althoughthey comprisenearly half the populationand have been enfranchised since the inceptionof Pakistan itself,women have neverfound themselves asmuch the target of election campaigns asthey find themselves today.

Women’s Wings ofpolitical parties havebeen organised and “womenonly” public meetings are being held.This sudden upsurge of interestIn mobilising support of the female population can be attributed to the growth of politicalconsciousness among the women living in the urban areas. The major events which appear tohave contributed to the rise ofsocial and political awareness, although not necessarily interest and involvement  among the womenare the International Women’s

Year in 1975 and a numberof moves by the Government ofPakistan which were directed towards improving the social andeconomic status of women as aclass. The publicity the IWY andthe other measures received, morethan their actual achievements,could be considered responsiblefor infusing an awareness in women of their social and politicalenvironment.In order to assess the level ofpolitical consciousness in women from all walks of life. DAWNconducted a survey amongst across-section of women in Karachi.

The survey was held in earlyFebruary when electioneering hadstarted in real earnest but had not reached the pitch it did afortnight later. Some of the questionsmight be differently answered by some of the women if theywere to be interviewed again today,but this would not radically change our findings.

To cover women from all walksof life, a number of areas wereselected. The localities visited by our investigators were as variedas the Defence Housing Society,Clifton, KDA Scheme No. 1, PECHS, Nazimabad, Liaquatabad,Golimar, FB Area, Korangi,Landhi, Gizri, Tin Hatti and Azam

Basti.The women interviewed weredivided into four income groups,namely. A—the upper class with an income of over Rs3,000; B—the middle class with an income of Rs1,201-3,000; C—the lower middle class with an incomeof Rs501-1,200, and D—thepoorer classes earning less than Rs500.

Of those interviewed 28 per centwere working women who includedthe highly professional ones such as doctors and the low-paidones such as the cleaning women. But the idea of taking note ofthem was to determine generally

if their daily contact with peopleoutside their homes and their socialtraining or education, if any, affect their political attitudes andbehaviour.

Another factor which must benoted is that of literacy. Although69 per cent of those interviewedclaimed to be literate, the disparityamong the various classeswas most marked. Only 16 percent of group D could read ofwhich over half had not evencompleted their schooling. But ingroup A 95 per cent were literateand a third of these had a post graduate degree. In the iriddleincome group literacy rangedfrom 88 per cent for group B to75 per cent for group C.This no doubt affected the levelof awareness among the women.

Within each income group, theliterates were definitely better informedthan their illiteratecounterparts.

The survey was kept strictlynon-partisan and it was madeclear that, we were not interested in party affiliations. Hence noquestion was designed to elicitviews on political orientations.The objective was to test the level of awareness and interest displayedby women in politics. Insteadof asking a woman directly if sheis interested in politics we preferredto ask questions which indirectlybrought out the degree ofher political involvement. For instancethe women were asked ifthey had ever attended a publicmeeting, if they were members of a political party and if in theiropinion it was proper for women to take active pan in politics.The questions most relevant towomen’s interest in the electionpertained to the vote. More thanhalf of them knew for certain that they have been registered asvoters (53 per cent). But 26 percent replied that they do not know if they are registered. It was themiddle class (groups B and C)which showed greatest sense of civic responsibility since 70 percent of women from these groupssaid they are registered as voters.

Only 31 per cent of group D and42 per cent of group A are registeredas voters.

This indifference displayed bythe upper and the lowest classcan of course be attributed to differentreasons. While the upperclass does not feel any social oreconomic compulsion to get involved in politics, the lowest income group is handicapped by its lackof education and social backwardness.But what indicated a relativerise in the desire for participationin the political process on thepart of women was that 53 percent of them plan to vote this time.

Only 47 per cent of thosesurveyed had cast their vote inthe last election in 1970.The. same pattern as indicatedearlier emerged in various groupsin respect of the women’s intention to exercise their franchise.

While 60 per cent of the womenfrom the middle class said theywould cast their vote, only 42 per cent of group D and 51 per centof group A said they would vote.

The discrepancy in groups Aand D in the numbers of thoseregistered and those who plan tovote stems from two factors.First, a large number of women(38 per cent in group A and 21per cent in group D) said theydid not know whether they hadbeen registered as voters. Theyreplied in the affirmative to thequestion on the assumption that they might have been registered.Secondly, in group D, womenshowed a gross ignorance of thepolitical process when a numberof them said they had not beenregistered as voters, yet theywould cast their vote! In thisrespect the working women displayedgreater interest than the house wives in the elections since55 per cent of them said they planned to vote.

We were rather surprised whenonly 51 per cent of the womensurveyed could name the candidates in their constituency. Butthis figure might be higher todayas the electioneering gains momentum.

Whereas only 24 per centin group D and 51 per cent ingroup A knew the names of theircandidates, groups B and C were better informed with 65 per cent aware of the candidates. Again, the relative lack of knowledge in in the top and lowest income groups  can be attributed to lack of interest and education, respectively.

As political consciousness among women is emerging on the scene now it is interesting as well as important to determine whether women have their own independent opinions or they simply reflect the political attitudes of the male members of their family. About 29 per cent of the women 1surveyed answered that their choice of the candidate would be influenced by their husbands/ fathers. But again the disparity among the classes was most marked. As anticipated, 58 per cent of the lowest income group womenreplied that their husbands or other male members of the family would determine their choice of acandidate”.

From the middle classes 20 per cent replied in the affirmative to this question and only 16 per cent from the highest incomegroup.

It must be borne in mind thatdue to their lack of education andtradition-bound way of life the women in group D have no othersource of information about whatis going on outside their homes except their menfolk. Hence theycannot be expected to formulatetheir opinions independently especially in a male dominated society. This also confirmed thetrend that as their economic condition improves women tend to become more and more independent  in their thinking. Thus only  six per  cent of the  women said they would vote as their husbands voted.

Among the factors which lnfluence women in formulating politicalopinion, newspapers were first on the list (26 per cent). Nextcame the family (21 per cent) andthen ihe radio and television (17 per cent). But as expected thedisparity within each group was pronounced and can be attributed to the socio-cultural factors mentioned earlier. While the familyinfluenced the views of 44 per centof the women from group D, newspapers received the first priorityin all the other classes. Books andjournals figured very low on the list in all the groups. About 33per cent of the working womensaid they were influenced by theircolleagues.

A striking feature of politicallife in most Afro-Asian countries is that the personality of the candidates rather than their partvmanifestos and programmes determinethe decision of the voters. This trend was confirmed by oursurvey. While 39 per cent of thewomen surveyed opted for a candidate’spersonality rather thanhis party, 26 per cent were undecided.Thirtyfive per cent werepositively in favour of party programmes.

While many women showedmore interest in the candidate’spersonality, they generally did not attach much importance to thesex factor. Only 23 per cent repliedthat they would vote for afemale candidate irrespective ofher ability because being a womanshe would understand theirproblems and represent them better.

But there was a marked differencebetw^een group D and theothers. In this group 46 per centcame out in favour of a womancandidate (38 per cent were undecided)but in the other groupsas many as 83 per cent (group B),66 per cent (group C) and 73 percent (group A) were emphaticthat they would not support afemale candidate only because shewas a woman. Working womenwere also not inclined to vote fora woman only on the baste of hersex.

Seventynine per cent of themclearly said so. This should dispelthe impression that has gainedcurrency that women want to berepresented by women alone whateverbe then calibre. The lowestincome group’s answer in favour of women representatives can beattributed to their social inhibitionswhich preclude free communication between the sexes.Another finding which shouldinterest women libbers is that when they were asked if they would vote for a candidate whostands for social change and theemancipation of women, 51 per cent of the women surveyed gavepriority to other considerations.

Actually it was the upper classwhich displayed greatest interestin the emancipation of women (60 per cent). Although 39 percent of women in group D saidthey would support a candidate who stood for social chanee. 36per cent opted for other considerationsand 25 per cent were undecided.

In the middle incomegroups the disinterestedness insocial change was quite marked.

In group B. 57 per cent went infor other considerations and ingroup C, 75 per cent were for other factors. This confirms thatas yet the attitudes of womenthemselves towards a change in their own social and economicstatus has not been reorientedsubstantially. The middle classhardly seems to be upset by thepresent social order and wouldopt for the status quo.

In fact for the women who expressedthemselves in favour ofother considerations, the major issues were promotion of nationalinterest (47per cent) and improvementof living conditions through provision of civic amenitiesand economic reforms (30 per cent). But the priorities variedaccording to the income group.Thus the lower class spoke moreabout regularisation of their colonies,improvement in water supply and so on. The middle class expresseditself in favour of a candidatewho stood for national interest.

Local problems naturallydid not figure in the replies ofwomen from group A. since they have no such problems

One of the most revealing questionswas if they had attended apublic meeting and if not, why not? It was found that 76 per cent of the women surveyed had not attended a public meeting. The highest number of those who had attended was from groups C and D, 31 per cent of whom had been to a public meeting. Workingwomen showed even lesser interestin that respect and only 24per cent said that they had attendeda public meeting. Amongst

the reasons cited for not attendingthe major ones were lack oftime (36 per cent), lack of interest (17 per cent), disapproval ofmale members of female participation in political process (13 percent) and fear of violence (9 per cent). But within each group thepriorities changed. In group D disapprovalof menfolk figured on top followed by lack of time. Aswe moved up the scale, lack oftime was the major reason cited by the middle class. For group A.lack of interest took first priorityfollowed by lack of time.

The greatest paradox emergedin the questions whether womenshould take active part in politics and whether they were membersof a political party. Nearly 74 percent said ‘yes’ to the first question (although only 52 per centfrom group D agreed) but whentt came to active involvement the result was quite disappointing.While many womenshowed more interesti inthe candidate’s personality, they generally did notattach much importanceto the sex factor.Only 7 per cent were members of a political party. No one from theupper class was a party member.Only 6 per cent of the middleclass had joined a party and 15per cent of the lowest class were ,party members. Three per cent ofworking women were affiliated with a party.

Two trends broadly emergedfrom the survey. In the first placea close relationship exists between literacv and political awareness.Secondly, there is no similar correlationbetween political awareness and participation in politicallife. Due to the absence of homogeneityin their cultural patternsand the prevalence of illiteracyin the lowest group, the various classes showed a pronounced disparityin their replies. Moreoverthe percentage of women who repliedthat they were “undecided”or “did not know” was generally highest in group D. This can beattributed, as mentioned earlier,to their lack of education and their cultural norms which preventcontact with external socialinfluences. But while women from the middle classes and to alesser extent those from the upperclasses are better informed and aware of the political processesand issues being debated, theydo not manifest a desire to be actively involved in politics. Thus they were ofthe view that womenshould participate in politics but they themselves display a markedtendency to remain uninvolved bynot attending public meetings or enrolling as party members. Thereason most commonly cited isthat they have no time. The upper class which has relativelymore time is simply not interested.

However it is significant thatthe lowest class which was leastinformed showed relatively more involvement. A number of themhad attended public meetings.This could be because such rallies provide them with a recreationaldiversion from the monotony oftheir daily chores and party workers can persuade them moreeasily to go to a public meetingeven though their ignorance and apathy towards public issues andnational problems are appalling.But this gives rise to hope thatthe participation of the lowestclass in such meetings mightinitiate a process of political educationfor them which will draw them into the political mainstreampaving the way for ahealthy growth of democratic processes.