KHAR, Pakistan – 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 attacks 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.
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.
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.
“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, said Farzana Bari, head of the gender studies department at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad.
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.
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.