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

By Zubeida Mustafa

DURING the last few years women in Pakistan have emerged as one of the major foci of party campaigns. Although they comprise nearly half the population and have been enfranchised since the inception of Pakistan itself, women have never found themselves as much the target of election campaigns as they find themselves today.

Women’s Wings of political parties have been organised and “women only” public meetings are being held.This sudden upsurge of interest in mobilising support of the female population can be attributed to the growth of political consciousness among the women living in the urban areas. The major events which appear to have contributed to the rise of social and political awareness, although not necessarily interest and involvement  among the women are the International Women’s Year in 1975 and a number of moves by the Government of Pakistan which were directed towards improving the social and economic status of women as a class. The publicity the IWY and the other measures received, more than their actual achievements, could be considered responsible for infusing an awareness in women of their social and political environment.In order to assess the level of political consciousness in women from all walks of life. DAWN conducted a survey amongst a across-section of women in Karachi.

The survey was held in early February when electioneering had started in real earnest but had not reached the pitch it did a fortnight later. Some of the questions might be differently answered by some of the women if they were to be interviewed again today, but this would not radically change our findings.

To cover women from all walks of life, a number of areas were selected. The localities visited by our investigators were as varied as 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 were divided 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 income of Rs 501-1,200, and D—the poorer classes earning less than Rs500.

Of those interviewed 28 per cent were working women who included the highly professional ones such as doctors and the low-paid ones such as the cleaning women. But the idea of taking note of them was to determine generally if their daily contact with peopleoutside their homes and their socialtraining or education, if any, affect their political attitudes and behaviour.

Another factor which must benoted is that of literacy. Although 69 per cent of those interviewed claimed 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 ranged from 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, the literates were definitely better informed than 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 she is interested in politics we preferred questions which indirectlybrought out the degree ofher political involvement. For instancethe women were asked if they 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 election pertained to the vote. More than half of them knew for certain that they have been registered as voters (53 per cent). But 26 percent replied that they do not know if they are registered. It was the middle class (groups B and C)which showed greatest sense of civic responsibility since 70 percent of women from these groups said they are registered as voters.

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

This indifference displayed by the upper and the lowest class can of course be attributed to different reasons. While the upper class does not feel any social or economic compulsion to get involved in politics, the lowest income group is handicapped by its lack of education and social backwardness. But what indicated a relative rise in the desire for participation in the political process on the part of women was that 53 percent of them plan to vote this time.

Only 47 per cent of those surveyed had cast their vote in the last election in 1970.The. same pattern as indicated earlier emerged in various groups in respect of the women’s intention to exercise their franchise.

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

The discrepancy in groups A and D in the numbers of those registered and those who plan to vote stems from two factors. First, a large number of women (38 per cent in group A and 21per cent in group D) said they did not know whether they had been registered as voters. They replied 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 number of them said they had not been registered as voters, yet they would cast their vote! In this respect the working women displayed greater interest than the housewives in the elections since 55 per cent of them said they planned to vote.

We were rather surprised when only 51 per cent of the women surveyed could name the candidates in their constituency. But this figure might be higher today as the electioneering gains momentum.

Whereas only 24 per cent in group D and 51 per cent in group A knew the names of their candidates, 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 women replied that their husbands or other male members of the family would determine their choice of a candidate”.

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 that due to their lack of education and tradition-bound way of life the women in group D have no othersource of information about what is going on outside their homes except their menfolk. Hence they cannot be expected to formulate their opinions independently especially in a male dominated society. This also confirmed the trend 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 influence women in formulating political opinion, newspapers were first on the list (26 per cent). Next came the family (21 per cent) and then the radio and television (17 per cent). But as expected the disparity within each group was pronounced and can be attributed to the socio-cultural factors mentioned earlier. While the family influenced the views of 44 per cent of the women from group D, newspapers received the first priority in all the other classes. Books and journals 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 political life in most Afro-Asian countries is that the personality of the candidates rather than their partv manifestos and programmes determine the decision of the voters. This trend was confirmed by our survey. While 39 per cent of the women surveyed opted for a candidate’spersonality rather than his party, 26 per cent were undecided.Thirtyfive per cent were positively in favour of party programmes.

While many women showed more interest in the candidate’s personality, they generally did not attach much importance to the sex factor. Only 23 per cent replied that they would vote for a female candidate irrespective ofher ability because being a womanshe would understand their problems and represent them better.

But there was a marked difference between group D and the others. In this group 46 per cent came out in favour of a woman candidate (38 per cent were undecided) but in the other groups as many as 83 per cent (group B),66 per cent (group C) and 73 percent (group A) were emphatic that they would not support a female candidate only because she was a woman. Working women were also not inclined to vote for a woman only on the basis of her sex.

Seventy nine per cent of them clearly said so. This should dispel the impression that has gained currency that women want to be represented by women alone what ever be their calibre. The lowest income group’s answer in favour of women representatives can beattributed to their social inhibitionswhich preclude free communication between the sexes.Another finding which should interest women libbers is that when they were asked if they would vote for a candidate who stands for social change and the emancipation of women, 51 per cent of the women surveyed gave priority to other considerations.

Actually it was the upper class which displayed greatest interest in 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 considerations and 25 per cent were undecided.

In the middle income groups the disinterestedness in social change was quite marked.

In group B. 57 per cent went in for other considerations and in group C, 75 per cent were for other factors. This confirms that as yet the attitudes of women themselves towards a change in their own social and economic status has not been reoriented substantially. The middle class hardly seems to be upset by thepresent social order and would opt for the status quo.

In fact for the women who expressed themselves in favour of other considerations, the major issues were promotion of national interest (47per cent) and improvement of living conditions through provision of civic amenitiesand economic reforms (30 per cent). But the priorities varied according to the income group.Thus the lower class spoke more about regularisation of their colonies, improvement in water supply and so on. The middle class expressed itself in favour of a candidatewho stood for national interest.

Local problems naturally did not figure in the replies of women from group A. since they have no such problems

One of the most revealing questions was if they had attended a public 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. Working women showed even lesser interest in that respect and only 24per cent said that they had attended a public meeting. Amongst

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

The greatest paradox emerged in the questions whether women should take active part in politics and whether they were members of a political party. Nearly 74 percent said ‘yes’ to the first question (although only 52 per cent from group D agreed) but when it came to active involvement the result was quite disappointing.While many women showed more interesti in the candidate’s personality, they generally did not attach much importance to 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 of working women were affiliated with a party.

Two trends broadly emerged from the survey. In the first place a close relationship exists between literacv and political awareness. Secondly, there is no similar correlation between political awareness and participation in political life. Due to the absence of homogeneity in their cultural patternsand the prevalence of illiteracyin the lowest group, the various classes showed a pronounced disparity in their replies. Moreover the percentage of women who replied that they were “undecided” or “did not know” was generally highest in group D. This can be attributed, as mentioned earlier,to their lack of education and their cultural norms which prevent contact with external social influences. But while women from the middle classes and to a lesser extent those from the upperclasses are better informed and aware of the political processes and issues being debated, they do not manifest a desire to be actively involved in politics. Thus they were of the view that women should participate in politics but they themselves display a marked tendency to remain un involved by not attending public meetings or enrolling as party members. The reason most commonly cited isthat they have no time. The upper class which has relatively more time is simply not interested.

However it is significant that the lowest class which was least informed showed relatively more involvement. A number of them had attended public meetings.This could be because such rallies provide them with a recreational diversion from the monotony of their daily chores and party workers can persuade them more easily to go to a public meeting even though their ignorance and apathy towards public issues andnational problems are appalling.But this gives rise to hope that the participation of the lowest class in such meetings might initiate a process of political education for them which will draw them into the political mainstream paving the way for a healthy growth of democratic processes.

Source: Dawn 1 March 1977


hy growth of democratic processes.