Based on a tribal belt where cultural conservatism generally confines women to their households, Kurram's Ali Begum is a rarity.

A retired bureaucrat, Ali Begum is not only contesting the upcoming general elections from NA-46 (Kurram), she has also opened a first-of-its-kind election office for women keen to exercise their democratic right.

Located in the midst of Parachinar City, the election office was inaugurated recently in the presence of dozens of supporters — all unanimously chanting slogans for their leader.

Ali Begum admits that though traditional tribal culture limits women's role outside their households, that is not the case with Kurram.

"In tribal societies, cultural norms forbid men to utter the names of their womenfolk in front of male strangers, which results in a shortfall of women in voters’ lists," said Ali Begum, who will be up against 23 male candidates in the upcoming polls. "Women are also prevented from exercising their right to vote by families and local communities."

"But the people of Kurram never restrict their women from casting their votes or seeking an education, which has resulted in the highest females literacy rate in the whole of Fata," she added.

While Ali Begum maybe a pioneer, she is not content at being just that. The overwhelmingly positive response her candidature has received and the 49 per cent female voters in her constituency make her optimistic that she will go from a hopeful to lawmaker.

That optimism has necessitated the need to set up a women-only election office in Kurram.

"Due to a lack of voter education, many votes are cast wrongly, resulting in the cancellation of ballot papers," Khafiza Ali, a retired teacher and supporter of Ali Begum, explained.

"Women’s access to knowledge about the voting procedure are further constrained by their limited exposure to election campaigns and media. We established this office where we will train women about the electoral procedures and will manage our campaign from here."

Shahid Kazmi, a young political activist, spoke of another reason why women need to be better informed of their electoral rights.

"Female voters are sometimes forced to cast votes for particular candidates favoured by male members of their families," he said. "But this time, Kurram's female demographic seems to favour Mrs Ali Begum.

"They call her a ray of hope for women's empowerment in the region."

Another local, Sakina Ali, sees a much greater meaning in Ali Begum's efforts.

"Ali Begum's decision to come to the forefront and contest elections in such a remote and gender-biased society is the initiation of a feminist revolution," she said.

Sakina, like others, knows that Kurram has a distinct gender divide, but she also feels that Kurram's women, united on the other side of that divide, will vote Ali Begum into power on July 25.

"The women of Kurram will cast their votes in favour of her to express solidarity," she added.


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