Badam Zari becomes Pakistan’s first ever tribal woman to stand for election

"I want to reach the assembly to become a voice for women, especially those living in the tribal areas."

 

Pakistan’s tribal areas are not known for female empowerment. The Federally Administered Tribal Area (Fata) which borders Afghanistan is an ultra-conservative region where women are mostly uneducated, and rarely leave the house without their husbands, if at all.

However, a female resident from Bajaur district made history yesterday, by becoming Pakistan’s first ever tribal woman to stand in elections. Badam Zari is a 40 year old housewife, with no children. "I want to reach the assembly to become a voice for women, especially those living in the tribal areas," she told the Associated Press on Monday. "This was a difficult decision, but now I am determined and hopeful society will support me." Her husband, Sultan Khan, accompanied her when she went to file her nomination papers. He says she has his full backing.

Zari appeared at a press conference on Sunday, wearing a colourful scarf over her head and face, which left just her eyes uncovered. She said that no lawmaker from the tribal area had ever raised women’s issues in the National Assembly. “I want to work for the betterment of women in the tribal area, especially Bajaur Agency, which has suffered immensely in the tribal system,” she said.

She asserted that she is not afraid of anyone or anything, and that contesting the election is her constitutional and religious right. Although she says she has not received any threats yet, there is no doubt that this is a brave move by Zari.

Fata, already a deeply conservative region, is beset by Taliban militancy. In the 2008 election, around a third of the women registered to vote in Fata were prevented from doing so due to threats from local Taliban militants. Pamphlets distributed in Bajaur, Kurram, and Mohmand agencies warned tribesmen of bombing or other “severe punishment” if women were not kept away from polling stations. In addition to this, many candidates struck private agreements to ban women from voting.

“Women are half the population of tribal areas, but unfortunately they have always been deprived of their basic rights,” Zari said, acknowledging the fact that women in Fata are under-represented at the ballot box. Of the roughly 186,000 registered voters in her constituency, about 67,000 are women, according to government records. Often, those women that are allowed to vote are expected to do so in accordance with the wishes of the male members of their family.

Pakistan’s National Assembly has a long history of prominent female politicians, including Benazir Bhutto, who was the first woman to head a Muslim state. Around 17 per cent of the seats go to women, under a quota system. Even for women from less conservative areas of the country, standing for direct election as Zari is doing – rather than being allocated party seats – is unusual.

Analysts say that Zari, who is standing as an independent candidate, does not have much chance at winning the seat. But most concede that the mere fact of her candidacy is of huge symbolic value in a region where women are barely allowed to have a political opinion or a stake in society. "This is very courageous," said Asad Sarwar, a political official in Bajaur. "This woman has broken the barrier."

Despite the taboos around women appearing in public in this region, Zari has said she hopes to hold rallies. "I am taking part in elections because our area is very backward and living condition of women is poor over here," she said. "There will be a lot of people opposing me, but we will try our best."

If nothing else, she is making a serious attempt to give women in Fata a voice. The importance of that cannot be underestimated.

 

Badam Zari.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Clinton vs Trump: How does the electoral college work?

A brief history.

If you have even the vaguest awareness of US politics, you'll no doubt recall the role Florida played in the 2000 presidential election. The result in the state was so close that arguments about recounts and hanging chads went on for weeks, before the result was finally settled – and the next president decided – by the US Supreme Court.

The odd thing about Bush v Gore, though, is that nobody questioned which of the two had more votes: it was Al Gore, by more than half a million. (The number of contested votes in Florida was something like a tenth of that.) To put it another way, it was always clear that more Americans wanted Gore as president than Bush.

And yet, the outcome of the election ignored that entirely. It turned instead on who had won Florida. That, the Supreme Court decided, had been Gore's opponent: George W. Bush became the 43rd president of the United States, and the rest is history.

So why did a man who everybody agreed had come second become president? Why did the whole thing end up turning on the number of votes in a few counties of former swamp?

History and geography

The answer comes down to that weirdly undemocratic American invention, the electoral college. The founding fathers, you see, did not actually intend for the president to be chosen by the people.

Much of the constitution was the work of the over-achieving Virginian delegation to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Their plan, written by James Madison, suggested that the president should be chosen by Congress.

That idea was rejected on the grounds that it would undermine the president's independence. Some delegates feared that allowing a bunch of men who spent all their time locked in a room together arguing pick the head of state would lead to “intrigue” (yes), and suggested the president should be chosen by popular vote instead.

So they settled on a compromise. Each state would pick “electors” – how they did so was their own business – and these would in turn pick the president. Senators and congressmen were specifically barred from becoming members of this electoral college; but an aspect of the original plan that survived was that the number of electors in each state would be equal to the number of representatives it had it Congress.

Some of the oddities in this system have been ironed out over time. By the mid 19th century most states were choosing electors by popular vote: the presidential election may be indirect, but it's an election nonetheless. After the 23rd Amendment passed in 1961, those who lived in Washington DC, previously disenfranchised because it isn't a state, were given the vote too (it gets three votes in the electoral college).

But others anomalies remain. Here are three:

1) A lack of proportion

One of the big issues in 1787 was persuading the original 13 states to agree to the new constitution at all. Many of the smaller ones (Delaware, New Hampshire) were nervous that, by joining the union, they would instantly be dominated by their much bigger neighbours (Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts).

To keep them on board, the Constitutional Convention agreed the “Great Compromise”. The size of the delegations each state sent to the House of Representatives would be roughly proportional to the size of its population; in the Senate, though, every state would get two senators, whether it had several million people, or three old blokes and a dog. In other words, the US constitution had to deliberately over-represent smaller states in Congress, just to persuade them to sign up to the thing in the first place.

All this still applies today – and because size of a state’s delegation to Congress determines the number of votes its gets in the electoral college, smaller states are over-represented in presidential elections, too. The result is that a vote in California is worth less than a third of a vote in Wyoming:

Image: Fzxboy/Wikimedia Commons.

2) A lack of faith

The people don't choose the president: the electoral college does, with electors generally voting based on the votes of the people in their state.

But the operative word there is “generally”: while most states have laws requiring electors to vote with the popular will, or rendering their vote void if they don't, some 21 states do not. So, occasionally, there are “faithless electors”, who don't vote the way their state wants them to. In the 57 presidential elections between 1788 and 2012, there have been 157 incidents of such faithlessness (although, to be fair, in 71 cases this was because the electorate's preferred candidate was dead).

This has never affected the outcome of an election: the closest was in 1836 when the Virginia delegation refused to vote for vice presidential candidate Richard Mentor Johnson on the grounds that he was having an affair with a slave. (Being massive racists, they were fine with the slavery and the abuse of power; it was the interracial sex they had a problem with.) But Martin Van Buren's election as president was never in doubt, and even Johnson was confirmed after a vote in the Senate.

Even in those states which don't have laws to punish faithless electors, becoming one is still often a bloody stupid thing to do, since it generally means betraying the party that made you an elector in the first place, an act which will almost certainly wreck your career. Nonetheless, it is constitutionally possible that, when the electoral college meets after November's election, some of its members will ignore the result entirely and propose, say, Kevin Spacey as the next president. And those are the votes that count.

3) A lack of interest

The biggest oddity of the system though is the fact of the electoral college at all. The voters don't pick the president: the electoral college does. The result is that presidential campaigns need to focus not on individual voters, but on states.

Most states allocate their electoral votes on a winner takes all basis. There are two exceptions to this: Nebraska and Maine both hand out one electoral vote to the winner in each congressional district, and two to the state-wide victor. This rarely makes any difference, since both states are small, and any candidate who carries the Maine 2nd is likely also to have carried the whole of Maine. Just occasionally, though, it does: in 2008 Obama narrowly carried the Nebraska 2nd (Omaha, basically), prompting grumpy local Republicans to redraw the boundaries to dilute the local Democratic vote and so ensure this wouldn't happen again.

In the vast majority of states, however, winning 50.1 per cent of the vote will be enough to get you 100 per cent of the electoral votes. In an election with more than two candidates, indeed, you don't even need to do that: a simple plurality will get you 100 per cent of the vote, too.

This, combined, with demographics, mean we already know how something like 363 of the 538 electoral votes on offer will go. Only around 13 states are considered competitive this year. In the other 37, plus the District of Columbia, we might as well already know the result.

The result is that, for the next few weeks, there will be endless reports about Florida, Virginia and Ohio. But you're not going to hear so much about how voters are feeling in California or Delaware or Arkansas or Texas. The first two will go for Clinton; the last two will go for Trump. The campaigns will ignore them; the voters may as well not show up. State-wide demographics mean the result is already clear.

In a true popular election, every vote would count equally. In the electoral college, they do not. The result, 16 years ago, was four weeks of legal wrangling over a few hundred votes in Florida. The result, this year, is that it’s entirely possible that Donald Trump will become president – even if Hillary Clinton gets more votes.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.