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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What it’s like to be a Syrian refugee in Paris

“We fled from terror and it found us again here. It feels like it is always behind us, stalking us.”

Walid al Omari arrived in Paris a little less than a month ago. Having fled the slaughter of his homeland and undertaken the long and dangerous journey, like tens of thousands of other Syrian refugees, to western Europe, he was finally safe.

Ten days later, a wave of brutal violence tore through the French capital as gunmen and suicide bombers put an end to the lives of 130 people who had been out enjoying a drink, dinner, a concert or a football match.

“It felt like terrorism was everywhere,” recalls the 57-year-old Walid, a former small business owner and journalist from the suburbs of Damascus.

“We fled from terror and it found us again here. It feels like it is always behind us, stalking us.”

Syrian refugees, not just in Paris but across Europe and North America, have since found themselves caught up in a storm of suspicion. The backlash started after it emerged that at least two of the attackers arrived in Europe among refugees travelling to Greece, while a Syrian passport was found next to one of the bodies.

It has not yet been confirmed if the two men were really Syrian – all suspects whose identities have so far been made public were either French or Belgian – while the passport is widely believed to be a fake. But, already, several US states have said they will not accept any more refugees from Syria. In Europe, Poland has called for the EU’s quota scheme for resettling refugees to be scrapped, while lawmakers in France, Germany and elsewhere have called for caps on refugee and migrant numbers.

“I fear the worse,” says Sabreen al Rassace, who works for Revivre, a charity that helps Syrian refugees resettle in France. She says she has been swamped by calls by concerned refugees in the days following the attacks.

“They ask me if the papers they have been given since they arrived in France will be taken away, if they’ll be sent back to Syria,” she says.

Anas Fouiz, who arrived in Paris in September, has experienced the backlash against refugees first hand.

“One waiter at a bar asked me where I was from and when I said Syria he said that I must be a terrorist, that all Arab people are terrorists,” says the 27-year-old from Damascus, who had been a fashion student before leaving for Europe.

The irony is that the terrorist organisation that claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, the Islamic State, is, along with Bashar al Assad’s army and other militant groups, responsible for the long list of atrocities that prompted many like Walid and Anas to flee their homes.

“As a man in Syria you have the choice of joining the Syrian army, the Islamic state or another militant group, or you run away,” says Anas.

He remembers seeing news of the attacks unfold on television screens in bars and cafés in the Bastille area of Paris – close to where much of the carnage took place – as he drank with a friend. Desensitised by having seen so much violence and death in his home city, he didn’t feel any shock or fear.

“I just felt bad, because I know this situation,” he says. “You just ask yourself ‘why? Why do these people have to die?’.”

Perhaps a more pressing cause for concern is how easily extremists in Europe can travel to Syria and back again through the porous borders on the EU’s fringes – as several of the Paris attacks suspects are thought to have done.

Both Anas and Walid speak of the lax security they faced when entering Europe.

“Turkey lets people across the border for $20,” says Walid.

“In Greece, they just ask you to write your nationality, they don’t check passports,” adds Anas. “It’s the same in Hungary and Macedonia.”

Nevertheless, and despite his experience with the waiter, Anas says he is happy with the welcome he has received by the vast majority of the French people.

In fact, at a time when fear and violence risk deepening religious and social rifts, Anas’s story is a heartening tale of divisions being bridged.

Upon first arriving in Paris he slept on the streets, before a passer-by, a woman of Moroccan origin, offered him a room in her flat. He then spent time at a Christian organization that provides shelter for refugees, before moving in with a French-Jewish family he was put in touch with through another charity.

He says the biggest problem is that he misses his parents, who are still in Damascus.

“I speak to my mum twice a day on the phone,” he says. “She asks me if I’m okay, if I’m keeping safe. She’s worried about me.”