THE year is 2005 and the place is Kambat, a village in Lower Dir. It is a postcard from God: Verdant fields, abundant cattle, soaring maples, and under a long wooden bridge, a crashing river determined to break free from marble boulders. To a visitor, Kambat appears the epitome of pastoral peace. To the two sisters who live in a rock house amid lush fields, it is anything but. Ever since they decided to contest the local government elections in August 2005, peace walked out on them and their family. They became the focus of the community’s wrath for rebelling against tradition.
“For the last few nights, someone has been throwing stones at our house, hiding there in the corn fields,” said Hayat Bibi back then. “My brother-in-law has been told not to enter the mosque and the children stopped from attending the madressah.”
Women, who had the right to 33 per cent of seats under Musharraf’s devolution plan and the right to vote under the Constitution, faced resistance, coercion and violence from within the community and religious and secular political groups for seeking their electoral rights. In Samarbagh tehsil — home to Jamaat-i-Islami’s emir Sirajul Haq — where village Kambat is located, elders from the JI and Awami National Party gathered in a mosque and swore not to allow women to participate in the elections.
Women are “forcibly deprived of their electoral rights in 34 union councils of Dir district,” said the Aurat Foundation back then.
The year is 2018. All her years as a social activist have not prepared Hameeda Shahid for an assembly of 300 men in her community. Despite the confidence that her party stands by her, she quakes in her shoes when soliciting votes in Dir and Kohistan. “I recite kalima before going in to speak to them. From mountains to the mosque, they are all JI supporters here. Afraid of elders, no one could wear a PTI cap here until a few years ago.”
Hameeda Shahid, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s candidate in PK-10 — one of the most backward constituencies in a region officially declared as the least developed — has reasons to be afraid.
The year the Kambat sisters faced social boycott, relatives killed Zubaida Begum, a rights activist and a union councilor, along with her daughter Shamaila Shah, 19, in the middle of the night on July 1, 2005. The killer reportedly said he did so because the community taunted him about her character.
It’s a subtle subversion Hameeda uses when out canvassing men. She inverts the notion of honour, making the men carry that burden — instead of women in a tribal, patriarchal society. “I tell them I am your sister, your ‘tor saray’ – a term of respect used for women,” she says. “I tell them without their support I cannot win. I give them stakes in my victory because if I win, this region and its people win.”
Shahid joined the PTI in 2012. “Politics before us was a drama and I am out to change that,” says Shahid, a mother of six who married in 1985. “My children are grown-ups and I could afford to go into politics. I went to elders in the PTI asking if I could contest from here. They said Dir is tough. I said who wants it easy? So they made me a party coordinator.”
A designer with her own couture line, Shahid has always been active as social worker. In the three UCs of her village Ushatay Dara, her family is politically entrenched in the JI and PPP camps. Her grandfather who went to the Aligarh University was an education reformer who encouraged people to seek education under the Nawab of Dir, who was loath to educating his subjects lest they challenge his rule.
In the 2013 elections when women groups would go yet again to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and courts to complain against disenfranchisement of women, Shahid and her family, including the children, would mobilise women, arranging transport for them to go to polling stations to vote for her party despite resistance from the community.
The year 2015. A men-only turnout in a by-election in PK-95 Dir sparked a nationwide controversy. In a landmark verdict, the ECP voided the polls because of the disenfranchisement of women. Of a total of nearly 5,300 women voters, not a single woman had cast vote in the May 7 by-poll. The PK-95 seat had fallen vacant after JI chief Sirajul Haq was elected senator.
That year, Hameeda Shahid would confront the Deputy Commissioner in Dir after an earthquake left mountain communities shattered. “I went to him with a list of women and families who hadn’t received any aid. He contested my findings, saying I should carry out a survey. I said you get salary, you do it. Those who didn’t need help were getting it while women waited in queues and offices for help. All my efforts were frustrated but I decided to stay on and fight.”
She went on to become the vice president of the PTI’s Women Wing in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. For the last two years, she has been the president of the party’s Sports and Culture Federation.
In January 2018, the ECP was empowered through the Election Commission Act 2017 to nullify results in constituencies where women’s turnout was equal to or less than 10pc. It can take action against the forcible ban on women voting. Political parties are now required to field women candidates on at least 5pc of general seats for the National Assembly and Provincial Assembly elections.
In the run-up to the 2018 elections, Hameeda Shahid secured PTI’s nomination for a provincial assembly seat. The party wanted her to contest on a NA seat but she refused, saying she wanted to work for the welfare of her constituency. Much like the Nawab of Dir, widely condemned in the district for wilfully keeping it backwards by denying people education, she blames local political parties for the abysmal socioeconomic indicators of her district.
Despite resistance from the community, including her relatives, and taunts that her family “stoops to engage its women for social work”, Shahid puts up a brave appearance, like the sisters from Kambat in her native Dir. “When I go out, I don’t care if a family has traditionally supported the JI, PPP or PTI. I go despite my fears and women often tell me they would support me.”
But Dir remains a deeply conservative region. In view of that, her party has been considering canvassing through pamphlets for her where campaigning in person is not an option.
Asked for a picture, Shahid said pick one from her Facebook. Warily, she added: “Just make sure you get one where my head is covered.”
Published in Dawn, July 2nd, 2018