BAJAUR, Pakistan — Badam Zari exudes confidence. And as the first woman in Pakistan’s tribal region to ever run for political office, she’ll need it.
While she is early in her controversial election campaign — she’s only just filed her nomination papers — Zari, 45, is receiving surprising support from a community that typically calls for women to stay at home.
Outside a small courtroom in Khar, the capital of Bajaur Province, a dozen supporters — almost all men — cheered when the election commission official announced that Zari would be allowed to run.
“I am not contesting the polls just to attract media or people,” Zari said in an interview at her home. “I have two major objectives that I want to achieve. First, I want to work for the betterment of women in tribal areas, who have suffered a lot in the tribal system.”
Second, she says she wants to promote a softer image for Pakistan’s tribal regions, which are more commonly known for militancy and violent conflict than women’s lib.
Zari’s husband, Sultan Mohammad, is among her supporters and sat next to her during the interview. He is a teacher at a local secondary school.
Zari said she’s aware that challenging centuries-old Pashtun tribal customs, which call for a woman to run the home and little else, is dangerous. For one thing, Zari supports equal education for girls and boys, a position that’s been fatal for some. But she is heartened by the early support she has received. So far, she said, she hasn’t received any threats from other tribesmen or any militant groups.
“I am not scared. My husband stands alongside me, that’s enough,” she said.
Bajaur, a small province in Pakistan’s semi-autonomous tribal region that borders Afghanistan, has long been a home to the Taliban. Pakistanis here are regularly caught amid fighting between the Pakistani military and militants, and suffer through the constant threat of the US drone war. In 2006, an American drone struck a school here, killing 82 civilians, many of them children.
While the Pakistani Army has managed to push the Taliban over the border to Afghanistan, militants continue to launch cross-border attacks. Security remains ever-present. The road from Peshawar to Bajau is littered with security checkpoints, one every half mile.
Zari, against all odds, wants to reform the image of what is globally recognized as one of the most dangerous places in the world. And she wants to start by providing basic services like clean water and electricity, and by supporting the region’s women and children.
Abdul Wahab, a local teacher, told GlobalPost he thought Zari’s campaign would send a positive message to the world.
“This is a great step, and I will vote for her,” he said. “By accepting Zari’s decision, I want to show the Western world that a majority of people here are peaceful, and they can support a woman in elections.”
According to the Pakistan Election Commission, there are 186,000 registered voters in the province where Zari is running. Almost 67,000 of those voters are women.
“I have taken the toughest decision of my life. I am hopeful that not only women but men will support me as I am not doing anything against Islam and Pashtun culture,” said Zari, who was forced to leave school early by her father.
“My heart bleeds when I see my women fetching water from mountain springs, and children walking barefoot. I feel their pain from the core of my heart. They have been betrayed by traditional politicians during the last 64 years.”
Zari’s decision quickly inspired another woman, Nusrat Begum, to file nominations papers for a National Assembly seat in Lower Dir district, another region of Pakistan that borders Afghanistan and is besieged by militancy and US drone strikes.
Nusrat, too, is the first ever woman in the history of Dir to contest an election.
Nusrat belongs to the political party founded by Imran Khan, the popular cricket player-turned-national politician, but was forced to file as an independent because the national party gave its ticket to a male candidate.
Unlike Zari, Nusrat took the additional risk of appearing unveiled when she filed her papers at the local courthouse.
In just 2008, the last general election, an agreement among various political parties — both religious and secular — banned women from even casting votes in this region. But this time around, every political party has accepted the right of women to vote.
Despite this groundswell of support, most local election experts see the campaigns as only symbolic, with little chance of success.
“No doubt, this is a bold step taken by the two women, particularly, the one from Bajaur, however I don’t see any chances whatsoever of their victory. You can simply term it a beginning. There is a long way to go,” Zafarullah, a Bajaur-based journalist, told GlobalPost.
Indeed, many here accuse Zari of catering to Western values.
“It will be no surprise to me that someday she will receive so-called threats from so-called militants, and then she will become another darling of the West,” said Mukhtar Khan, a small hotel owner. “And at end of the day, she will appear either at the US Embassy seeking political asylum like many other men and women who have tried publicity stunts in the past to obtain US visas.”
Or perhaps the winds are shifting. Khan Bahadur is the leader of Uthmankhel, one of the two main tribes of Bajaur.
“We feel proud that a woman from our area has taken the lead,” he said.