- The Washington Times - Friday, August 12, 2005

Pakistan — Courage and determination are Shad Begum’s only weapons against centuries of tradition and months of intimidation.

The 26-year-old social worker is preparing to contest next week’s local elections in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province, where religious hard-liners have been doing everything in their power to prevent women from standing for the district assemblies.

The risks can be deadly. Last month, Zubaida Begum, an outspoken women’s rights activist whom Shad Begum considered her mentor, was killed by gunmen.

Efforts by militants to exclude women run counter to official attempts to moderate the increasingly strident Islamist elements in Pakistan.

Four years ago, President Pervez Musharraf declared that a third of all seats must be reserved for women. But the North-West Frontier Province and adjoining tribal areas always have done things their own way.

Gen. Musharraf expelled foreign students from the Islamic schools known as madrassas after the July 7 attacks in London when it was revealed that at least two of the suicide bombers had visited them months earlier.

He also went to the Supreme Court to strike down proposals to introduce a strict, Taliban-style morality code to the North-West Frontier Province, which is dominated by Pashtun tribes whose homelands spread into neighboring Afghanistan.

The role of women has been as limited there as across the porous frontier, with post-pubescent girls and women veiled, usually confined to the house unless in the company of male relatives and rarely allowed to work.

Sitting in her Spartan office in her village in Dir district, 150 miles from Peshawar, Shad Begum is not afraid to confront the patriarchs and politicians who would exclude women from politics.

“They take advantage of the illiteracy in this area and justify their actions in the name of religion and traditions. But, in truth, they are only serving their own interest,” she said.

“Many influential religious and political leaders have approached my father and husband [in an attempt] to stop me from taking part in the election, but I resisted these social pressures.”

She has the support of her husband, who says he hopes women will usher in a new era for Dir.

However, Muhammad Rasool Khan of Jamaat-e-Islami, a radical party that has pursued political alliances designed to exclude women from the elections, is unapologetic.

His party’s efforts were in “accordance with Islam and the traditions of this area,” he said. “The majority of the women are illiterate here, and they know nothing. So, how can they take part in the electoral process?”

Several village elders have decreed that women must not leave their houses when elections are held next Thursday and Aug. 25. But Shad Begum and more than 100 other women who have filed nomination papers in Dir, remain defiant and accuse male politicians of hypocrisy.

Peter Foster in New Delhi contributed to this article.

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