AMID the din of election rallies, the clash of political workers and scuffles and more over tickets and constituencies, two women from Pakistan’s conservative areas quietly stepped forward and filed nomination papers for the May 11 polls. It was a big step for those two women — Badam Zari from Bajaur and Nusrat Begum from Lower Dir — and an even bigger leap for electoral politics in Pakistan. Indeed the symbolism of the news cannot be highlighted enough. That women were willing to come forward and contest an election from an area where political parties usually collude to prevent female voters from exercising their choice cannot be celebrated enough. At the same time, these two women candidates remind the rest of the country, in fact the entire world, that Pakistan’s tribal areas are not simply synonymous with militancy. Behind the façade of violence, bomb blasts and gun-toting extremists are flesh and blood people who share the same aspirations and dreams as their counterparts elsewhere. And these dreams include exercising their political rights as citizens and women.
However, as Pakistan celebrates the message the nominations of these two women brings — even before it is known what their political message as electoral candidates is — it should not be forgotten that they are still campaigning in areas that are afflicted by violence and militancy where even riches and political influence cannot shield one from harm. As women, Badam Zari and Nusrat Begum are particularly vulnerable to terrorist threats and hence the state must do its best to protect them as they campaign. In fact, the state must provide protection to all other vulnerable candidates — after all, ensuring a free and fair election includes ensuring the equal participation of all candidates and not just those who can afford to keep themselves safe.
But it is not simply the state that needs to be reminded of its due role. Political parties also need to wake up to their responsibilities and do their bit to bring more women into the political mainstream. In this regard, they need to do far more than put together lists of their loyalists for the reserved seats in parliament. Instead, they should be nominating more women on their safe seats. And last but not least, they should be actively mobilising women to vote rather than colluding with each other to keep them away on polling day in parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Fata. Now that would be a giant leap for the political parties, if they would take it.