A Pakistani housewife, who cannot read or write, despite being married to a headteacher, has made history by becoming the first woman approved to run for election in the tribal belt where the Taliban holds sway.
Badam Zari, 53, has little chance of winning, but her enthusiasm has been seized upon as a step toward emancipation in one of the most conservative parts of Pakistan, where women live in purdah and many are barred from even voting.
“I am contesting the election with passion, with a clean heart and a clear conscience. My passion is to educate the future generation, girls and women, and to serve them,” she said by telephone from Bajaur district. “I know I am the first woman to contest and I am hopeful that I will win.”
Bajaur is one of seven districts that make up Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The semi-autonomous region of mountains, valleys and caves is one of the most deprived, impoverished and ill-educated in the country.
It has been a stronghold for Afghan Taliban, al-Qaeda and other Pakistani militant groups, and for years a battleground between the army and insurgents.
Thanks to reforms introduced by the outgoing government in a bid to lessen the grip of militancy, political parties can now contest elections for the first time in FATA, but 53-year-old Zari, who comes from Arang, is standing as an independent.
She said she has nothing to fear, but acknowledges she will not be able to campaign in public. Instead, she will stay in purdah — either in her quarters or in the quarters of other women, who are not allowed to gather in public.
“I have no fear, I have never been threatened by anyone,” she said.
She registered to run on Sunday, but was only told by election commission officials on Wednesday that her application had been accepted. Under Pakistani law, being illiterate and uneducated is no bar to running for parliament.
Noor Ul Wahab, an election officer in Bajaur, confirmed yesterday that Zari’s papers had been approved, clearing the way for her campaign.