Conservative men and Islamic militants bar women from voting in parts of Pakistan

Khazana, Pakistan - Posters of the Muslim world's first female prime minister, the late Benazir Bhutto, fluttered in the wind. But the ballot boxes inside the women's polling station of this impoverished village were empty Monday.

The elders of the village in the Islamic nation's conservative northwest took their own vote the day before Pakistan staged its crucial elections. They decided women would not have a say in selecting the constituency's national and provincial lawmakers.

No one defied the order, said Farida Begum, an election official at the largest segregated polling station in Khazana.

"Everything is available for women to vote. We are here but no one is coming so we are just sitting and gossiping," said Begum, her stout frame hidden behind a white chador or shawl.

It was the same story in Sheikh Mohammedi, a village not far from recent violent clashes between Pakistan's military and pro-Taliban insurgents farther out of the city.

"It is difficult for Muslim women because they cannot leave their home," said local tribesman Anwar Khan. "They should stay in their home unless they go out with a man. Women have never voted here and now the situation with the bomb blasts is dangerous."

Despite the historic elevation to the premiership in the 1990s by Bhutto, who was assassinated in December, women still have little political clout in Pakistan. In the ethnic Pashtun belt bordering Afghanistan, things are going from bad to worse.

Over the past year or two, pro-Taliban militants have gained sway here, challenging the writ of the government and launching a blizzard of attacks that have sown fear in local communities.

Insurgents have attacked girls' schools, warned women against working for international or local charities, beheaded women they accused of adultery and stoned others. They have also warned women against casting their ballot or working at the election.

Shamaila Umbreen, a polling official in Sheikh Mohammedi, was fuming that women could not vote in the village, but was also scared of the militant threat.

"Out here in the villages we can't speak freely. We are not safe in this area. We don't know what can happen to us with these Taliban and they are in the villages very close to Peshawar. We know that and we are afraid," she said.

Unsurprisingly, partial unofficial returns late Monday showed either very few or no women winning parliamentary seats in the northwest.

Women do have a reserved quota of 60 seats out of 342 in the National Assembly, which are allocated on a proportional basis according to parties' performance. They also held minor portfolios in the Cabinet of the outgoing civilian administration.

But rights workers say women remain politically marginalized in Pakistan.

Asma Jehangir, head of the nongovernment Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said the threat of militant violence not only deterred women voting in the northwest, but in more liberal parts of the country as well.

"Normally in the past in the Punjab and in Lahore the voting numbers between men and women was not that different. But this time it was half as many women as men," Jehangir told The Associated Press. "I think the people were too scared to bring their women along to vote."

Jehangir alleged some parties had used scare tactics over violence to dissuade women from voting, believing they would opt for Bhutto's party out of sympathy for the opposition leader's slaying in a suicide attack eight weeks before the elections.