LAHORE: Stationed at a bustling polling camp opposite the entrance to Mayo Hospital, a young veiled woman in her twenties gesticulates as she recalls her experience campaigning for Mohammad Yaqoob Sheikh, an independent candidate for NA-120 backed by Hafiz Saeed’s Milli Muslim League (MML).
The young activist, who introduces herself as Umme Hammas, says that polling started off at a snail’s pace on Sunday morning because “Lahoris like a good sleep”, but voting picked up after noon and most women began showing up at around 2:30pm. “You know how most women have to take care of lunch at their homes; so we’ve seen quite the turnaround in the number of women voters after lunchtime.”
Picking up the voters’ list, she counts off the number of women who had visited the camp — 45. “We have an hour left till polling closes and I know more women will show up.”
She adds that her party is different because it is grounded in the universalist ideology. “I came here some 20 days ago because our (Jamaatud Dawa) markaz in Gujrat sent me to campaign for our candidate…. I’ve never participated in any political activity…, but the last few weeks of engaging with the constituents have helped me realise that I want to be an active political worker for MML when I go back,” she says.
Like Umme Hammas, many women political workers stationed at the polling camps came to Lahore from other cities.
Firdaus Rai from Faisalabad has been campaigning for the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf in UCs 50, 53 and 61 for the last ten days. “It’s been a fantastic campaign…. It was obvious that the government had not carried out any development work in the UCs I was working in. The residential colonies behind Data Darbar are especially ripe for change and we managed to convince a lot of people not to vote for the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).”
Rai is stationed at a polling camp near Kardar Park, along the incredibly busy Mohni Road. She picks up the voters’ list and shows the tally for women visiting her camp so far — 250.
Like most places, voter turnout picked up in late afternoon and Mohni Road experienced many traffic jams. Large groups of political workers and their supporters jostled with each other to get close to the desks where party workers would riffle through the voters’ lists to confirm registration.
Standing in front of the PML-N camp and recording a message live on Facebook is an elderly woman who introduces herself as Apa Zubaida. “I’m a member of the municipal corporation of Rawalpindi and I am handling the campaign in certain union councils here…. The PML-N’s women activists and supporters here are incredibly disciplined and I have been on my feet since 8am and there’s so much enthusiasm here that I’m not the slightest bit weary.”
Suddenly the cacophony around the polling camps is rent with slogans of “India ka jo yaar hai ghaddaar hai, ghaddaar hai” from a tent surrounded with banners carrying pictures of Hafiz Saeed. Yaqoob Sheikh has arrived here.
Speaking to Dawn, he says the overall voter turnout was fantastic and he was impressed by how many women had come out to vote and how active the MML’s women workers had been in door-to-door campaigning.
However, he shares apprehensions about the outcome of the election as he alleges that the PML-N and the Election Commission of Pakistan were hand-in-glove when it came to pre-poll rigging, especially on the issue of voters’ lists. “The Supreme Court declared Nawaz Sharif the king of financial corruption but from what we’ve observed while campaigning is that he is the unrivalled king of political corruption,” he alleges, adding that the number of discrepancies in the lists ran into thousands.
Over at the MML camp in UC 68, Mozang, MML worker Mian Maqsood Ahmed says: “We’re still in the process of getting our party registered; so we don’t expect to win, but we have a lot of support in NA-120…. The people love Hafiz Saeed and kiss his picture printed on our banners.”
Three elderly men sit hunched over a table next to the Government Community High School, Mozang Road. There are no banners or loud music or raucous sloganeering — this is the camp of Jamaat-i-Islami. “All I can say about the women’s turnout is that an elderly lady Zunaira came to us looking for her polling station but she was registered at the polling station on the other side of Mozang…she was really old and could barely walk but she told us that she would vote for the Jamaat no matter what, so we got her a rickshaw.”
The narrow winding streets behind the busy Data Darbar are bustling with activity. Vans, pick-ups, rickshaws and motorcycle rickshaws festooned with banners of various political parties stop at designated intersections to take voters to the polling stations. A young woman rushes over, requesting to be interviewed.
“I just cast my vote for the first time,” says Munazza Naveed, a resident of Chaudhry Park. “I’ve never cast a vote before but I begged my husband to bring me this time because we need the PTI to win…. We’re not afraid to support PTI!”
The area is the heartland of Nawaz supporters, some women standing in a group explain, and the pressure to vote for PML-N is immense. Ameena Saleem, an elderly widow, glances sideways before admitting that she, too, voted for Imran Khan. “I truly believe he can change things for the better,” she says.
A few paces away, an elderly woman berates the men standing at the PML-N’s camp. “I am arthritic and I need a rickshaw to get to the right polling station. It is almost 5pm so you better hurry up; I need to cast my vote for ‘sher’.”
Published in Dawn, September 18th, 2017