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Giving voice to Pakistan's 'voiceless': Housewife becomes first female candidate in tribal region

Anwarullah Khan / AP

Badam Zari, (right) wearing a colorful headscarf, leaves the election office after filing her candidacy for parliament in Khar, capital of the Pakistani tribal area of Bajur, on Monday.

PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- A housewife in Pakistan’s tribal belt has made history by becoming the first woman from the restive and conservative region to run for office. 

“The women in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have faced many challenges because of unnecessary restrictions on them and rigid tribal traditions,” Badam Zari, 38, said in a telephone interview from her native Bajaur, a district in Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal region. “I want to give voice to our voiceless women.”

Zari, who on Monday put her name on the ballot for the May 11 parliamentary elections, has her work cut out for her. Not only is she up against 44 other candidates, Bajaur is also home to militants who have waged war against state institutions, such as schools for girls and women. 

In 2008, Pakistan’s army launched a massive operation to evict militants from the area, with soldiers flushing out many of the militants in 2011. But while Pakistani forces have managed to establish an uneasy peace in Bajaur, problems facing women have not disappeared – Pakistan is at the bottom of world maternal mortality and women’s literacy rankings. 

Pakistani troops say they want to rebuild Waziristan, a corner of Pakistan that has become a hotbed of military activity, with financial help from the U.S. and others. But in order to do that, they insist U.S. drone strikes on the area must end. NBC's Amna Nawaz was granted exclusive access to the region that had previously been off-limits to foreigners.

Zari said she is running for office to do something about these dismal conditions.  

“Women in Pakistan in general, and those living in the remote tribal areas in particular, have been neglected,” said Zari, who is married to a school principal. The couple do not have children.

The candidate added that past parliamentarians had served their own interests and not those of the tribal population as a whole. She vows to try to stamp out endemic corruption and boost services, such as health care and schools. While being a strong supporter of women’s education, Zari herself has only completed the fifth grade. 

Fellow Bajaur resident Dil Faraz Khan welcomed Zari’s move, and said that existing lawmakers were corrupt and had done “nothing” for the community. 

“I was so happy today when I heard on local FM radio that a woman would contest election,” he said. “This woman would be far better than those corrupt politicians.” 

He worried, though, that Zari would have a difficult time competing against established politicians who bribed voters to get into office.

Although some of her fellow tribesmen welcomed Zari’s move, Sahibzada Shah Jehan argued that to campaign for office ran counter to tribal traditions.

"After Malala Yousafzai, most of the women are trying to do something that could help them get popularity across the world,” he said, referring to the Pakistani schoolgirl shot in the head by militants for promoting girls' education. “But they ignore that their action could jeopardize their lives."  

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