KARACHI, Pakistan, May 10 (UPI Next) -- In a remote electoral district of Pakistan's northern tribal region, where men traditionally dominate and violence against women is routine, 45-year-old Badam Zari is the first female candidate for a seat in the National Assembly in Saturday's planned elections.
Zari is running as an independent candidate from the Bajaur district of Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, situated along the Afghan border west of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and the Swat Valley -- a Taliban stronghold rife with violence. The Taliban have threatened candidates with death, although Zari told UPI Next she has not received any threats.
She is running against 24 male candidates, including a local landlord member of the socially conservative and Islamist Jamaat-e-Islam.
"Although I am uneducated, I thought I should do something for the people, especially the women of my area," she said by cell phone.
The situation in her area "is not as bad as it is portrayed in the media," she said, adding that women veil their faces and cover themselves so strangers cannot see them, "but they also get an education." She spoke in Pashto, while her sister-in-law, who has a master's degree in physics, translated.
Zari said her religious duty is to promote health and education in her community, and that women of her area are willing to vote for her.
"Many got their national identity cards made so they could vote," she said.
She also has male support, she said.
"Men of my family and village, Arang in Bajaur Agency, have applauded my decision and are supporting me. Mohammad Sultan, my husband, is the principal of the school in Bajaur is also helping me campaign, which we are doing door-to-door. He and my brother-in-law, who is a doctor, also campaign for me by talking to the people they meet during their profession."
She said no party offered her an election slot and that she does not want to be part of a party.
"My manifesto is to work to improve the situation of education and health in my area," Zari said. She wants to help provide employment for orphans and widows by establishing centers where they can learn marketable skills.
Pakistani law reserves 60 National Assembly seats for women. Of the 4,671 candidates running for seats, 161 are female. At the provincial assembly level, 355 of the roughly 11,000 candidates are women. Almost 50 percent of the country's voters are women.
"The large ratio of female votes can turn an election," former Election Commission officer Shoaib Ashraf, a lawyer, told UPI Next. "Males have become aware of the importance of the female vote and therefore those who had forbidden their females from voting in the past have allowed them to not only vote but contest these elections."
The emergence of female candidates in terrorism-prone tribal areas such as Bajaur is an "unprecedented welcome step," Human Rights Minister Anis Haroon said.
"This will empower the women of these areas," Haroon told UPI Next.
"Even though they will not win, this symbolic process reveals that a change has come in the mindset of the society which will pave a path for more changes regarding women in the future," he said.
Haroon said the process "no doubt has male support," calling it "a great political statement."
"We will probably be seeing a greater female voter turnout in the May 11 elections as compared to no females voting as in the past," he said.
"There is hope," he said, "that this change will allow women to resolve issues faced by women in these areas."