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Pakistan's war against women
August 23, 2005
Zubaida Begum was the solitary woman graduate in the upper Dir district in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province.
After teaching at a small girls school in her remote village of Daroda for 20 years, she retired after her husband's sudden death to look after her three daughters.
Five years ago, General Pervez Musharraf announced a new local government system in which 33 percent seats in every union council and district council of the country were reserved for women. Zubaida Begum was delighted, assuming that this would give her daughters and former students a chance to participate in the local political process.
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But days before the elections -- Photograph alongside: Pakistani women queue up to cast their ballots at a polling station in the local government election in Peshawar, August 18, 2005 -- local tribal leaders decreed that no woman would be allowed to vote -- leave alone contest the polls.
Zubaida Begum decided to defy this edict and submitted her nomination papers to the local election officer for the seat reserved for women in the local union council.
Worried friends and relatives tried to dissuade her from challenging the local elders' diktat, but she was unmoved.
The majority of village elders are supporters of Taliban leader Mullah Omar and had sent dozens of young boys to Afghanistan to fighting the Americans after 9/11.
By defying the local elders, Zubaida Begum invited danger not only to herself but also to her daughters.
Despite this, she was elected unopposed to the local union council, the first-ever woman politician from the most conservative area of the most conservative province in Pakistan.
She immediately started social services, not only for women but also for men of the village. She constructed a road, arranged for clean drinking water and helped uplift the village.
When local government elections for 2005 were announced, many men in the village requested that she now contest a general seat. Others proposed that she contest the district council polls and also do something for other villages.
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But angry tribal elders, who have monopolised local politics since the creation of Pakistan, warned her again through her relatives to stay away from politics. She ignored the message.
Days before the election, some people entered her home and gunned down Zubaida Begum and her 19-year-old daughter Shumaila.
Her assassination was a big blow to all the women who wanted to exercise their constitutional right of voting in the local polls on August 18.
Zubaida's younger daughter Jannat Bibi, 17, has now taken up her mother's mantle. Though too young to contest the election, she tried her best to encourage local women to vote.
There are 2.5 million registered male voters and 2 million women voters in the NWFP.
However, according to official sources, women in more than 30 union councils in 12 districts in the province were not allowed to vote or contest.
Politics was banned for women not only in the remote tribal areas but also in some towns of a big city like Peshawar, the provincial headquarters of the NWFP.
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This conservative province is being run by the religious parties alliance, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, but surprisingly even the liberal and progressive parties were also involved in banning women at polling stations.
Nilofer Bakhtiar, the prime minister's adviser for women's development, shocked people by accepting that the Pakistan Muslim League was also party to some agreements in the NWFP to ban women from elections.
The Muslim League is one of President Musharraf's major allies but President House is silent about Bakhtiar's statement. Even Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party was part of the conspiracy against women.
The only reason to prevent women from voting is that participation of women in the decision-making process is against the NWFP's centuries-old tribal traditions. No party -- however liberal and conservative its platform -- is ready to challenge these traditions.
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Federal Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao is very fond of speaking against Al Qaeda and propagating the enlightened moderation introduced by General Musharraf. But in his hometown, Charsada, women were barred from voting in more than three union councils including the big town of Tangi.
While Sherpao condemns the extremist policies of the religious parties, his provincial party leaders, who won a majority in Chardasa, were part of the extremist anti-women agreement.
In some areas, even Imran Khan's Tehrik-e-Insaf was involved in banning women from voting. Yet no party has taken any action against provincial or district leaders for political terrorism against women.
Pakistan is a country where a woman like Fatima Jinnah contested the first ever-Presidential election 40 years ago against a dictator like General Ayub Khan. She lost that election but won in big cities like Karachi and Dhaka despite the rigging.
Pakistan is a country where Benazir Bhutto became the first-ever woman prime minister of a Muslim country 17 years ago despite opposition from army intelligence agencies.
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Pakistan is a country where women members in the two houses of parliament number more than 100 today.
And unfortunately, Pakistan is also a country where Zubaida Begum was killed because she was trying to break the anti-women traditions by participating in a local bodies election.
Zubaida Begum's assassination and banning women in the NWFP and some areas of Baluchistan is a great challenge for General Musharraf, who expresses great pride in fighting a war on terror.
But his own political allies are terrorising women and were part of agreements which say a man whose wife voted would be fined Rs 5 lakhs (Rs 500,000).
These unconstitutional and un-Islamic agreements are like a mirror in which we can see our ugly and dirty faces.
General Musharraf claims he has introduced real democracy to Pakistan. This is not democracy, but hypocrisy.
His allies in the Pakistan Muslim League share power in Baluchistan with religious parties; the chief minister is from the PML. So why were women prevented from voting or contesting elections in many parts of the province?
General Musharraf cannot claim Pakistan is a genuine democratic country, which is participating in the global war against terror until he stops the war against women launched by his political allies.
More reports from Pakistan
Photograph: Tariq Mahmood/AFP/Getty Images