Women’s Suffrage

By Syed Aamir Ali

Suffrage comes from suffragium  the Latin word for voting table or ballot before 2nd century and by 17th Century English language adopted it into “suffrage” meaning “a vote” or “the right to vote”. While the right to vote seems like perfectly normal thing to us in 2020, women in particular didn’t have the right to vote until quite recently.

Before we start on the history of when and who, we can look around us and find people who still in this day and age not only poke fun at the idea of women in politics, with the main argument being that a woman’s place was in the home, not polls. There continues to be quite apparent and at times veiled disapproval for women’s participation in politics and affairs of the government. As Aurat March takes place in the month of March you shall come across many a comments by retrogressive individuals and trolls depicting young girls turning into activists after a failure in life, such as not being “married”.

The Suffragettes were these brave women who campaigned for women’s right to vote and stand in election.. First petition in1866 petition was signed by 1,499 women, from various walks of life calling for women to be given the vote on the same terms of men. It tanked after decades of resistance when almost a century ago when British women got the right to vote through the ‘Representation of the People Act 1918’ for it finally granted women older than 30 and with property the right to cast the ballot, women of South Asian descent played a seminal role. One might wonder what do we as Pakistanis have to do with English women getting their rights? But the thing is if it hadn’t happened we might not have gotten any either because we were an English colony as well. There were many people of Asian origin long settled in England but obviously they made up a very small percentage of the population until after the end of World War Two. During this tumultuous time and at the height of British colonisation, many Asian women found themselves adrift within British society.

Two influential Asian women, in particular, Sophia Duleep Singh and Bhikaji Cama became powerful and influential suffragettes, fighting for Asian women and Indian independence. Princess Sophia Duleep Singh (1876-1948) has to be one of the most famous suffragette in history of United Kingdom. Daughter of exiled Sikh Maharaja Duleep Singh, Sophia’s mother was Bamba Müller, and her godmother was Queen Victoria. Although history downplays her political achievements and contribution to suffrage. Sophia Duleep Singh was prominent a member of the Tax Resistance League, protesting against the exclusion of women from the franchise by refusing to pay taxes and rates. In 1911 she followed the suffragette call to boycott the census, writing across her census form: “No Vote, No Census. As women do not count they refuse to be counted, & I have a conscientious objection to filling up this form”.

There is very little documentation of South Asian’s role in suffragette because unfortunately the reality was that the many British suffrage campaigners did not think about including women of colour into conversations and debates around citizenship, and the right to participate in the democratic structures of the nation. Essentially beliefs such as these were rooted in ideas of empire and colonialism. So much so In 1918, when Britain granted limited suffrage to women property holders, the law did not apply to British citizens in other parts of the Empire. Suffragists recognised that their political aims were tied to those of the Nationalist Movement. By combining  their goals, both nationalists and feminists benefited by articulating their common issues, resulting in more supporters to help with resolving their challenges. Between 1919 and 1929, all of the British Provinces, as well as most of the Princely states granted women the right to vote and in some cases, allowed them to stand in local elections.

Women weren’t given universal suffrage up until the independence, Women in Pakistan were granted voting rights in 1947 , which were later reaffirmed in 1956 with provision of reserved seats in the Parliament(at least in paper that is). Pakistan’s National Assembly has 60 seats reserved for women in addition to the 272 general seats for which direct elections are held. Although things are not all rainbows and unicorns , there are baby steps that need to be acknowledge. There are no rules in place by Election Commission of Pakistan whereby at least 10% percent of women had to vote in a constituency for the vote to be valid. But is also a reality where it is estimated that more than 12.17 million women of 18 years or above – who are otherwise eligible to be registered as voters – are not included in the voters list.

But this is not enough as Arhama Siddiqa writes in her article ‘The complex state of women’s suffrage in Pakistan’, “Although a constitutional right, millions of women have been banned from voting through agreements among political parties, local elders, and powerful figures, citing customs and traditions as an excuse. Often, women’s lifestyles, especially in rural areas, are completely detached from politics. So even if they may not be prevented from voting by their male relatives, they are raised to not pay attention to elections. And then of course there are hardliners who state that female participation in elections is haram (forbidden). This makes it hard for women to leave their homes, especially those who are not from liberal or urban backgrounds.”

For now the job is to educate people on why it matters and how long we have come. As years go by and our society becomes increasingly hostile and misogynist, even more needs to be done than what it took in 1918. It is a sad reality that many women don’t take interest let alone participate in politics, we must all remember that early suffragists did not see voting privileges as their primary goal; rather they saw suffrage as an opportunity to participate more fully in the public affairs of society through political engagement and civic action. So it is not just about politics, it is essentially about promoting human welfare in numerous ways.

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