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.