1 April 2013
Badam Zari, the first woman to contest a parliamentary seat in frontier region, says she is taking a stand for equality
For most women in Pakistan's war-torn and ultra-conservative frontier region, casting a vote in an election is an impossible dream, let alone standing as a candidate.
But one woman from Bajaur, a strife-ridden area bordering Afghanistan, has stunned her community by announcing that she is running for a parliamentary seat, despite the high risk of incurring the wrath of Taliban militants.
Badam Zari, the first woman to contest a seat in Pakistan's Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA), has filed her nomination papers for an election due to be held on 11 May.
She told the Guardian she wanted to show that men and women were equal. "I am getting a lot of phone calls of support from women saying you have opened doors for us," she said. "They are giving me a lot of encouragement."
The 40-year-old, who is married with no children, kicked off her political career on Sunday with a television appearance during which she wore a full veil that revealed only her eyes through a narrow slit.
Women rarely leave their homes without their husbands in the FATA. Even outside the region it is unusual for women to stand and have any chance of winning in regular seats (there are separate seats reserved for women that are allocated to parties according to their overall share of the vote).
In 2008 many of the candidates in the FATA struck private agreements banning women from voting, something Pakistan's electoral commission says it is trying to prevent this time round. Traditional mores are also policed by militants who have attacked and murdered activists promoting women's rights.
"There are so many restrictions on women in FATA that even going outside the home is a big deal," said Anwar Ullah, a Bajaur resident, who said most people he knew were surprised by Zari's decision. "She will not get much support but maybe it will encourage more women in the future to come forward and take part."
Saad Muhammad, a retired army brigadier and expert on the FATA, agreed that Zari had no chance of winning. However, he said her candidacy had enormous symbolic value.
"This is a major development, the way she is standing up to these militant groups that want to impose a medieval culture on us," he said. "It shows there is a significant population in this area who are for education, emancipation of women and who have, by the standards of FATA, a very liberal outlook."
Even if voters do not return the region's first female representative, this year's elections will be historic as Pakistan's political parties have been allowed to organise candidates in the specially administered tribal zone for the first time. It is a move that some hope will weaken the influence of the FATA's tribal chiefs and traditional powerbrokers.
In the past decade the region has become home to a wide array of militant groups, including the Pakistani Taliban which is at war with the state. The violence has forced huge numbers of people to flee to displacement camps. It is still not clear where the displaced will get to cast their vote.
Muhammad said military operations had improved the situation in Bajaur somewhat, but the smallest of the seven tribal agencies was still subject to Taliban attacks.
Despite the risks, Zari said she hoped to hold public rallies and would put her trust in God for her own security. "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."
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