'Go on, Ali Begum, we are with you': Support rings out in Kurram for NA-46's only female candidate

22 Jun 2018


Tribal elders welcome Ali Begum at the inauguration ceremony of her election office. ─ Dawn/File
Tribal elders welcome Ali Begum at the inauguration ceremony of her election office. ─ Dawn/File

Resounding chants of "Ali Begum, zindabad" ring out in Parachinar as a 69-year-old woman wearing a headscarf and traditional shawl enters an enclosure packed with thousands of cheering men.

With steady steps, she makes her way to the podium from where, over the next few minutes, she delivers an impassioned speech. In the stifling heat of the enclosure, rivulets of sweat stream down her face. The suffocated audience gasps for air.

Unperturbed, Ali Begum continues her speech. She demands basic human rights ─ education and health services, security and peace in the terror-stricken area.

Ali Begum is the first woman in the area who joined the civil service and has served at key positions across the country. Politically moderate, Begum is currently running for Upper Kurram's NA-46 seat as an independent candidate.

She is up against 23 male contenders in the remote, conservative, patriarchal and male-dominated area, where a woman has never trod this path.

She thanks the crowd and ends her speech, asking them to vote for her in the upcoming polls. Without pausing for rest, she takes off to address yet another public meeting where she will speak to women in the area.

The outspoken tribal woman receives a warm welcome when she steps into the venue at Karmian, a small village in her native Parachinar, from where a large number of families travel southward or abroad, fleeing militancy and sectarian violence.

Women and girls wearing burqas impatiently awaiting her arrival begin clapping and enthusiastically chanting the slogan: "Qadam barhao, Ali Begum, hum tumharay saath hain (Go on, Ali Begum, we are with you)" as she enters the venue to address the gathering.

Here, the retired bureaucrat delivers another heated speech which focuses on education, health, human rights, and the law and order situation in the area.

Begum was born into a well-known and educated family in Parachinar in the 1950s.

Her father, then deputy director of the Education Department, was posted in Abbottabad at the time which allowed her to complete her early schooling and Matriculation there ─ an opportunity which was nearly unthinkable in conservative Parachinar.

She went on to attend Frontier College for Women, Peshawar, where she received an FA in 1969 and a Bachelor's degree in 1971.

But her life took a turn when she was married off to a man she had never met before. Her education came to an end and she became a home-maker.

After a few years, her husband allowed her to take on a job as a teacher. Shortly thereafter, studious Ali Begum joined him in preparing for the Central Superior Services (CSS) exam.

Through courage and perseverance, Begum appeared in the 1979 exam, passed in her first attempt, and joined the district management group (DMG) ─ but her husband failed to clear the competitive exam.

Joining the DMG was a big achievement for Ali Begum, but she faced a great deal of gender discrimination at the time of her posting.

"After concluding training, the male officers in our group had been posting as assistant commissioners," she tells DawnNewsTV, adding that she was also interested in district administration positions.

When then governor Fazl Haq suggested her appointment as assistant commissioner for Hazara Division, people of the area took to the streets in protest against the possible posting of a woman in the key position, forcing the division commissioner to withdraw her name.

It was at that time, she says, that "I decided to stand against male-dominated society."

The situation eventually changed, and Ali Begum never looked back.

She was posted to key positions including secretary planning and social welfare, and after an illustrious career, retired from service as managing director of the Frontier Education Foundation in 2009.

Begum, who had always harboured a desire to do something for her native Kurram, built a house there before retirement. Although she aimed to shift there after completing her service to the government, the security situation in 2009 was unfavourable due to militancy and sectarian violence, compelling Begum and her family to leave the country and settle in the United States.

"In 2009, the law and order situation worsened and the Thall-Parachinar Road was completely shut to traffic," she explains, saying that residents were restricted to remaining in Parachinar.

After the military operation in the tribal belt, law and order appeared to improve and with it came a semblance of normalcy to Parachinar.

Ali Begum packed her bags and returned to Pakistan, ready to serve her people. She was nominated a member of a commission on the status of women.

Begum, who wishes to serve her people and improve their lives through her political struggle, has kicked off her NA-46 election campaign by holding rallies, corner and public meetings with particular focus on women and youth.

She says she has good teams of young men and women who arrange public meeting in different villages.

She is hopeful that the 168,868 voters in the constituency ─ including 72,842 women ─ will vote for her and send the area's first female representative to the National Assembly.