Most people just talk about change. Only a few manage to make an impact. Soufia’s conviction that she has a right to vote – even if she is currently overseas – led her to create a Change.org petition.

The Election Commission has agreed, in principle, to let overseas Pakistanis participate in the General Elections this May. There’s just a slight problem. It wants a change in the law and there’s a chance that the issuance of an ordinance by the caretaker government could resolve this dilemma. Yet it’s still just a chance and that means the wind could turn either way. The Commission may genuinely want to help expand the electorate to include the rightful votes of Pakistanis who happen to be abroad on Election Day. Or this could just have been a face-saving move in court, which will end with a feeble, and lame, apology for not having been able to implement the decision on time because of an exploited loophole in the system. Regardless of the intention, if voting arrangements are not successfully made on time in 10 countries outside of Pakistan, is the Election Commission really going to take a hit, be made to feel bad for it or have its chief resign for failed promises, inefficiency and incompetence? Probably not, because that’s what Pakistani citizens don’t do enough of: hold people accountable for their words and commitments.

Pakistani society seems to be at a point where one’s word is starting to be of no consequence. Whether we transact, interact, debate, comfort, teach or yell, our words now amount to very little, if anything at all. When people stop talking, they don’t hear alternative voices or comprehend the situations, lives and issues of others. They exist in silent noise, the background to a menial existence concerned with only the most basic elements of survival – food, shelter and clothing. How are we comfortable disassociating from our most valuable asset – the power to hold and express opinion?

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe we all want a chance to speak and be heard, but don’t know how to get there. The government, we claim, doesn’t make it easy. In fact, it doesn’t seem to help at all. It watches, just as helplessly as the rest of us, while crazies rob the country blind, nurture hate and aggression or convince young boys to take up arms against their own people. But we are equally guilty: we think of ‘us’ or ‘them’, pitting two binaries against each other. This is us, all of it. It’s beautiful sometimes, like when we do well at sports or win truck-decoration competitions and it’s ugly a lot of the time, when there is blood, violence, hate and anger. But to distance ourselves from the full range of emotions that describe Pakistan is to practice weak citizenship; it’s to freeload off the hard work of others, but not put in our two cents apiece to fix things that go wrong.

So when I felt like the Election Commission was starting to drag its feet on voting rights for people like myself, Pakistanis who are abroad, I wondered whether I could do anything at all to try to make my voice count. After all, that’s what the whole issue is about – a voice for the millions of Pakistanis outside of the country. It isn’t that I wasn’t upset by the whole situation. I wondered, in the corners of my mind, what it meant to be Pakistani when I was being denied one of the most taken-for-granted rights in developed countries.

What I realized was this is exactly what it means to be a citizen: it’s about constantly reflecting on and wondering about your place in the political entity that you subscribe to and hold on to so closely and dearly. Citizenship doesn’t entail sitting back and expecting a distant government to hand out rights to you as and when you please; it requires raising a concern and arguing in its favour cogently and consistently so that those in a position to affect change listen to and address you. It’s like joining the traffic on a two-way road, a busy one that is loud and chaotic, confusing and frustrating. The solution doesn’t lie in outsourcing this navigation to a driver; it’s about becoming a skilful and patient enough driver yourself to handle the traffic, to keep going right up to the point where you meet the government and the government meets you.

I started an online petition at www.change.org, with the demand that the Election Commission grant NADRA permission to implement e-voting software for Pakistanis who are abroad. Then I sent it out to every Pakistani I knew and could get in touch with and asked them to share it with others they knew. I also shared it with other friends at my university The initial goal was to get 1,000 signatures in a couple of days, with the hope that a copy of it could reach the press and/or Supreme Court or Election Commission before the hearing on the 11th of April 2013.

Was I being naïve and ambitious? Yes. And many people told me as much in their responses to my plea. But they’re not the people this article is about or for. What motivates me every day, in all the things I think about, write and do with the hope that I can help make a difference for Pakistan, is the correspondence with scores of people who signed the petition, backed the initiative and said, ‘I don’t know how far this can go, but I’m willing to give it a shot.’ You can only imagine my surprise, therefore, when at a demonstration in London recently, I had a young man advising me to ‘go sign a petition at this site, change.org. It’s about voting rights for Pakistanis who are abroad.’ Or when a friend left a post on my Facebook page telling me people were tweeting about the petition and it had been carried in the news.

Am I claiming that my petition was directly responsible for the news released late into the evening of the 11th that the ECP had confirmed voting would go ahead for overseas Pakistanis? Not at all. What I’m trying to share with you is this: I was disappointed and upset with the Commission and I wondered if I could make even a tiny bit of difference in the way people think about words and voice in Pakistan. I wrote to my supervisor informing her I was going to miss my next deadline because I was foraying off on a citizenship excursion of my own (my research also looks at issues of citizenship among young Pakistani students) and then I set up the petition and spent 3 sleepless days and nights campaigning for it and writing to newspapers.

I ran into several walls and experienced discouragement. But I reminded myself that’s not how good countries are run: good countries have good citizens, who believe in things and act for them. They negotiate their rights and expect appropriate responses from their government. They don’t tire, they don’t give up, they don’t take no for an answer. It doesn’t matter if they’re at home or abroad. Citizens form their governments and it is for them that governments exist. If you’re a citizen of Pakistan, don’t ask how loyal you are to the country; ask if you are. If the answer is yes, keep urging the government to implement voting rights for Pakistani citizens abroad. Each of us in the electorate should have a chance to make a difference through a vote. I still believe Pakistan is a good country with good people. Here’s a chance to let the rest of the world know too.

Image Courtesy: ET Blogs

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