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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The first godless US election

America’s evangelical right has chosen Donald Trump, who hardly even pays lip service to having faith.

There has never been an openly non-Christian president of the United States. There has never been an openly atheist senator. God, seemingly, is a rock-solid prerequisite for American political life.

Or it was, until this year.

Early in the 2016 primaries, preacher and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and former senator Rick Santorum – both darlings of the evangelical far right – fell by the wayside. So did Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, the son of a preacher.

Ted Cruz, once the Republican race had thinned, tried to present himself as the last godly man, but was roundly beaten – even among evangelicals – by Donald Trump, a man whose lip service to religion was so cursory as to verge on satire.

Trump may have claimed in a televised debate that “nobody reads the Bible more than me”, but he demurred when pressed to name even a verse he liked. His pronouncements show a lack of any knowledge or interest in faith and its tenets; he once called a communion wafer his “little cracker”.

The boorish Trump is a man at whose megalomaniacal pronouncements any half-hearted glance reveals a belief in, if any god at all, only the one he sees in a mirror. The national exercise in cognitive dissonance required for America’s religious rightwingers to convince themselves that he’s a candidate with whom they have anything in common is truly staggering.

But evangelicals don’t seem troubled. In the March primary in Florida, Trump carried 49 per cent of the evangelical vote. He won Mississippi, a state where fully three-quarters of Republican primary voters are white evangelicals.

In the Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders became the first Jewish candidate ever to win a presidential primary – though he has barely once spoken about his faith – and Hillary Clinton has spoken about god on the campaign trail only occasionally, without receiving much media play. In fact, when the question of faith came up at one Democratic debate there was a backlash against CNN for even asking.

The truth is that Christian faith as a requisite for political power has drooped into a kind of virtue-signalling: the “Jesus Is My Homeboy” bumper-sticker; the crucifix tattoo; the meme on social media about footprints in the sand. It is about identity politics, tribal politics, me-and-mine versus you-and-yours politics, but it hasn’t really been about faith for a while.

What the hell happened?

Partly, there was a demographic shift. “Unaffiliated” is by far the fastest-growing religious category in the US, according to a study by the Pew Research Center, which also showed that the total proportion of Americans who define as Christian dropped almost 9 percentage points between 2007 and 2014.

There is no doubt that America is still a fairly devout nation compared with the UK, but the political mythos that developed around its Christianity is a relatively late invention. The words “under god” were only implanted into the pledge of allegiance – between the words “one nation” and “indivisible” – in 1954, by President Eisenhower.

The ascendance of the political power of the Christian right in America happened in 1979, when a televangelist called Jerry Falwell founded a pressure group called Moral Majority.

Moral Majority’s support for Ronald Reagan was widely credited for his victory in the 1980 election, which in turn secured for them a position at the top table of Republican politics. For three decades, the Christian right was the single most important voting bloc in America.

But its power has been waning for a decade, and there are greater priorities in the American national psyche now.

Trump’s greatest asset throughout the primary was what makes his religiosity or lack thereof immaterial: his authenticity. His lack of a filter, his ability to wriggle free from gaffes which would have felled any other candidate with a simple shrug. This is what not just religious voters, but all of the Republican voting base were waiting for: someone who isn’t pandering, who hasn’t focus-grouped what they want to hear.

They don’t care that he may or may not truly share their belief in god. Almost all voters in this election cycle – including evangelicals, polling suggests – prioritise the economy over values anyway.

On top of that, the Christian right is facing the beginnings of an insurgency from within its own ranks; a paradigm shift in conservatism. A new culture war is beginning, fought by the alt-right, a movement whelped on anarchic message boards like 4chan, whose philosophical instincts lean towards the libertarian and anarcho-capitalist, and to whom the antique bloviation of Christian morality politics means nothing.

Trump doesn’t pander, an approach only made possible by social media, which amplifies his voice six millionfold while simultaneously circumventing the old establishment constructs – like the media – which had previously acted as gatekeepers to power.

The Christian right – now personified in Jerry Falwell Jr and Liberty University, which Falwell senior founded in the Seventies – found itself another of those constructs. They were forced to choose: jump on board the Trump Train or be left behind.

They chose Trump.

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.