They arrived in small groups over the course of the day, defying religious militants who say Pakistani women should not be allowed to vote.
“We were thinking about not coming,” said Huma Shakeel, 22, a college student who was visibly relieved after casting her ballot here Monday. “People are afraid because of bombers, suicide bombers.”
Despite the deployment of 60,000 soldiers and police officers in Pakistan’s embattled North-West Frontier Province, threats from militants appear to have prevented thousands of women from casting their ballots there on Monday, according to Pakistani election officials.
Over the past year, religious militants have made enormous headway in the province, carrying out suicide attacks and intimidating moderates.
Election monitors in six polling stations specifically for women in Peshawar, the provincial capital, said 523 of 6,431 registered women had cast their ballots as of late Monday afternoon, a turnout of roughly 8 percent. Turnout among men was estimated at 20 percent across the province, low but still more than twice the estimated women’s level.
On Sunday night, militants posted signs in towns outside Peshawar warning candidates not to bring their female supporters to ballot booths. On Monday morning, elders in the Mattani district, just south of Peshawar, closed 30 polling stations for women, according to local journalists.
In Peshawar, election officials said they believed some families had barred women from journeying to the polls out of fear they would be attacked.
“Some families stop the women,” said Naheed Begum, an election worker who said 72 of 1,300 women registered to vote in her polling station had actually cast ballots.
Urban voter turnout is often significantly lower than rural turnout in Pakistani elections. But election officials said they believed that a series of recent attacks — including an election rally suicide bombing that killed 47 people Saturday — had discouraged voters, male and female, from journeying to the polls.
Overall turnout in the province appeared to be roughly half of what it was during the country’s last national elections in 2002. Over the last year, the province has suffered attacks from Pakistani and foreign militants based in the adjoining Federally Administered Tribal Areas, a lawless strip of territory along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
In interviews in Peshawar, female voters and poll workers criticized the militants. According to recent public opinion polls, religious extremists have grown increasingly unpopular in Pakistan as suicide bombings have increased.
Nasra Zahid, 37, a zoology professor who was working at a polling station, said Islam guaranteed women the right to vote. Zahid, who is religiously observant, wears a black veil that covers her face except for her eyes — an unusual sight in Pakistan, a religiously moderate society. Counting election results Wednesday night, she said militants were grossly misinterpreting her faith.
“These are not religious students,” she said. “These are terrorists. Our religion gives completely the right to vote to women.”