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 attack by Islamist militants in the hope of forcing the government to focus 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. 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 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. She was accompanied by her husband, who she said fully backed her decision to run for a seat in the National Assembly.
“This is very courageous. This woman has broken the barrier,” said Asad Sarwar, one of the top political officials in Bajur.
“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.”