ISLAMABAD - In the tribal areas, women have been voiceless for centuries. Deprived of basic education and healthcare, women have suffered the most from this neglect and there was no women representative to stand up and speak for them.

The KP-Fata merger has made it possible to give women a chance to represent the deprived and neglected women in the assemblies. For the first time, a woman hailing from the newly merged tribal district of Khyber has got the election ticket from Awami National Party on the general seat in PK-106 of Khyber district.

In the overall political history of Pakistan, the role of women in the political process is considered as most important. But the number of women in the Pakistani political system is very low and it is a matter of great concern. Many cases of keeping women away from using their right to vote through verbal and written agreements between the candidates and family elders have been reported in the past. However, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has taken some positive steps towards the removal of this issue by declaring it a social crime.

Afridi belongs to a conservative and male-dominated region of Khyber, where women are not even allowed to get formal education. Through her spirit, struggle and hardwork, she has got a chance to contest elections and serve the neglected women community of the tribal region.

Besides many other grievances, she is also having some reservations from the ECP as according to her the commission should take serious measures to stop candidates from distributing money among people asking them for votes.

She further claimed that her rival candidates had fixed a rate of Rs8,000 per vote and the ECP should stop it on urgent basis because it would directly eliminate the women from participation in politics.

According to Afridi, “The ECP should have made it mandatory for all the political parties to award party tickets to women candidates in every tribal district because in the upcoming elections only two women including her got the party ticket.” Talking to The Nation, she said, “I am from a male-dominated region of Khyber where life for a woman is very difficult. Women are expected to stay at home and men do politics.”

“In my regular door-to-door campaign, I face many problems from my opponents and even from workers of other parties as they are using my campaign pictures to create propaganda against me,” she lamented. She said that she did not get the party ticket to become a member of the assembly, but she wanted to be an aspiration and a ray of hope for the neglected women in the tribal areas.

She added that she would keep struggling for the rights of women of the area.

Khyber district is one of the tribal districts where all the candidates are men and Afridi is the only woman to contest from the district. According to her, she believed in women empowerment and would keep fighting for them till the end.

She said she knew that contesting elections from a conservative region would be difficult for her, but it was the only way to stand up and become a voice for the voiceless and set an example for other women. “I urge women to come forward and fight for their rights because no one else is going to do it for them,” she said.

She said that tribal women should be given ample opportunities to play their due role in the mainstream politics as well as to ensure their participation in the decision making and electoral process and the ECP should be active to observe such things which can halt women voters from using their right to vote. In response to a question, she said that she had decided to contest elections from the region because the women of tribal areas were greatly ignored, victimised and mistreated due to the state’s policies and traditional norms. “It is time to stand up for them and be their voice,” she elaborated

Many other women rights activists like Sanna Ejaz and Nausheen Jamal, coordinator of Qabaili Khor Organisation working for women rights in tribal regions, have also frequently asked for the political empowerment of women and their inclusion in the decision-making process.

“Activism is a tough job for women in the country and especially in newly formed tribal districts because as women rights activist one has to face many issues including threats to life and bullying by social media trolls who resort to character assassination,” she further said. The ECP Spokesperson Altaf Khan while commenting on the issue said that facilitating the women voters in the upcoming provincial elections was top priority of the commission.

While in his response to the claim made by Afridi, he said that if she was true then she must bring some pieces of evidence and submit it to the district returning officer and action will be swiftly taken by the ECP. He further said that the ECP in a meeting regarding the upcoming elections has directed the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government to take prompt measures and provide a safe environment for the women voters to use their vote without any fear. He further added that the commission has asked the provincial election commissioner and district returning officers to launch awareness and training programmes for women voters and female polling staff.

He also said that keeping in mind the importance of women voters, the ECP had decided to establish separate polling stations for women voters and female security and elections staff to make the environment safe and protective. According to the ECP, more than 2,000 polling stations have been established including 376 for women, 472 for men and more than 1,000 combined polling stations. He warned all the candidates that the results of the elections would be nullified if the ratio of women voters was less than 10 percent. In his special message on behalf of the ECP, he asked all the concerned authorities, local elders and media to cooperate with the commission in order to maximise the participation of women voters in July 20 elections. There are more than 2.8 million registered voters in tribal regions including one million women voters.