PESHAWAR -- A decision by Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazl) (JUI-F) to field a woman candidate in a recent election in the former tribal districts has been lauded by observers for empowering women.
Led by Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman, JUI-F, one of Pakistan's largest religious parties, awarded a party ticket to Suraiya Bibi, a 45-year-old Christian woman from Landi Kotal, Khyber District. She was running for a reserved minority seat in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Assembly in the tribal district elections held on July 20.
Although JUI-F failed to gain the majority needed for Bibi to win the seat, observers and human rights activists are praising her nomination for strengthening democracy and women's empowerment throughout Pakistan.
"Our selection of Suraiya Bibi was based on the belief that women's problems are more complex and can appropriately be resolved by a female," said Mufti Ejaz Shinwari, the senior vice president of the JUI-F chapter in the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
"Our party believes in serving the masses, and the selection of candidates is made on the consideration of the most suitable person," Shinwari said in August.
Bibi was considered the most suitable candidate because she could benefit women in tribal districts in addition to resolving issues faced by the minority community, he added.
Mufti pointed out that JUI-F also has Aasiya Nasir Masih from Balochistan Province, a female member holding a minority seat in the National Assembly.
Bibi said that she was worried whether the party leadership would consider her aspirations when she applied for the ticket.
Her decision to run for the KP Assembly was aimed at resolving the area's problems, especially those of women, said Bibi, who is a housewife with a background in social service.
Though she lost her race, Bibi said she was thankful for her party's leadership in supporting her and said it was the choice of the people.
"The nomination of a woman candidate by a religious party for a minority seat is a history-making development in politics in the tribal districts and will have very good and long-lasting impact on female empowerment," said KP Commission on the Status of Women (KPCSW) Programme Director Amina Durrani.
Bibi's candidacy "provided the opportunity and confidence for women to convey their voice easily and in accordance with strict norms of the area, where women's interaction with males is not allowed or encouraged", said Amina.
Male politicians tend to reach out only to other men, while women often meet with both men and women, according to Amina.
JUI-F's decision to give a chance to a female candidate has mobilised female voters in the region, she said.
"Awarding of a party ticket to a female candidate by a religious party is not only appreciated but also symbolic," said Waseem Ahmad Shah, a senior Peshawar-based journalist with a focus on court and electoral reporting.
The fielding of a woman candidate also boosts female turnout in elections, Shah said.
Female turnout in the recent tribal elections was 18.6%, while male turnout was 31.4%, said Shah, citing figures from the Election Commission of Pakistan.
It is very encouraging that 210,626 women cast their votes during the first time that elections for KP Assembly seats took place in tribal districts, he said, adding that the number of voters will increase with time.
Shah said he hoped that more women would both contest and participate in local government elections.