Anwarullah Khan and Sebastian Abbot/AP Staff
A 40-year-old Pakistani housewife has made history by becoming the first woman to run for parliament from the country’s deeply conservative tribal region bordering Afghanistan.
Badam Zari is pushing back against patriarchal traditions and braving potential attack by Islamist militants in the hope of forcing the government to focus more on helping Pakistani women.
“I want to reach the assembly to become a voice for women, especially those living in the tribal areas,” Zari told The Associated Press in an interview on Monday. “This was a difficult decision, but now I am determined and hopeful society will support me.”
Many of Pakistan’s 180 million citizens hold fairly conservative views on the role of women in society. But those views are even more pronounced in the country’s semiautonomous tribal region, a poor, isolated area in the northwest dominated by Pashtun tribesmen who follow a very conservative brand of Islam.
Most women in the tribal region are uneducated, rarely work outside the home and wear long, flowing clothes that cover most of their skin when they appear in public.
Zari, who finished high school, spoke to reporters at a press conference Monday wearing a colorful shawl wrapped around her body and head, with only her eyes showing.
Life for women in the tribal region has become even more difficult in recent years with the growing presence of Taliban militants who use the border region as their main sanctuary in the country. The militants have been waging a bloody insurgency against the government to impose Islamic law in the country and have a history of using violence to enforce their hard-line views on women.
Last fall, Taliban fighters in the northwest shot 15-year-old schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai in the head in an unsuccessful attempt to kill her because she resisted the militants’ views and was a strong advocate of girls’ education.
Zari is from of Bajur, one of many areas in the tribal region where the Pakistani army has been battling the Taliban. She filed the paperwork necessary to run for office on Sunday in Khar, the main town in Bajur. She was accompanied by her husband, who she said fully backed her decision to run for a seat in the National Assembly in the May 11 vote.
“This is very courageous,” said Asad Sarwar, one of the top political officials in Bajur. “This woman has broken the barrier.”
Men in Bajur and other parts of the tribal region have historically discouraged women to vote, saying they should remain at home, according to local traditions. Even in less conservative areas, women are often expected to vote according to the wishes of male members of the family, said Farzana Bari, head of the gender studies department at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad.
“In the name of culture and tradition, political parties and local power brokers have tried to keep women out of the political process,” Bari said. “This woman (Zari) has shown her own agency against the structures of oppression, which are very pronounced in that area.”
Pakistan ranked second to last in 2012 in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, which captures the magnitude of gender-based disparities in things like political empowerment, education and health. The only country Pakistan beat out was Yemen.
There are examples of Pakistani women holding very powerful positions in the country, such as the late former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, but many of them come from powerful feudal families and run for office when male relatives are not available, said Bari.
Approximately 17 percent of the seats in the National Assembly are also allocated to women on a quota basis and are distributed proportionally to the parties based on their performance in the election. Women can also run for directly elected seats, as Zari is doing.
Zari, who is running as an independent, said she has not been discouraged from locals to run and has not received any threats from Islamist militants. She hopes she can convince women to turn out and vote for her.
Out of the roughly 186,000 registered voters in her constituency, about 67,000 are women, according to government records. Under Pakistan’s political system, the winning candidate is the one who receives the most votes — not necessarily a majority — meaning Zari could be a strong candidate if she can get women to support her and the male vote is split among several candidates.
“My decision to contest the election will not only give courage to women in general and attract attention to their problems, but also helps negate the wrong impression about our society,” Zari said. “This will reflect a true picture of our society, where women get respect.”