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From Pakistan's tribal region to Parliament: A woman's dream

By Nic Robertson, CNN
updated 1:41 AM EDT, Thu May 9, 2013
  • Nusrat Begum the first female parliamentary candidate from her tribal region
  • She's campaigning for election but must still be accompanied by a male family member
  • Pakistan polls open on Saturday after campaigning marred by violence
  • Begum wants "to give women their rights, the rights that they deserve"

Islamabad (CNN) -- When Nusrat Begum walks in to our Islamabad office she arrives accompanied by her 17-year-old son and her brother.

Where she is from, in Pakistan's tribal border region close to Afghanistan, it would be unthinkable if she didn't have male relatives with her.

Even so I am struck that while campaigning for one of the most powerful jobs in the land, to be a member of Parliament, she is hobbled in a way no male candidate will be.

As she puts it, "As a woman it's hard because women are helpless and men are more confident so they have an advantage and can do anything."

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Despite the strictures on her life, she has respect for her roots. When we first talk she begins her opening remarks, "Bismullah," in the name of God. It is a sign of respect for all she has grown up with.

Nevertheless her campaign to be the first female representative from her tribal region is against the current of its conservative tribal and religious culture which, for the most part, relegates women to a life of relative drudgery, child-rearing and cooking.

Her own experiences are a little different. In the mountainous region of Dir where she is from she is the one in her family who draws water from the well at their house. She alone cooks the family food over an open fire in the yard, and when it's all done she alone washes the dishes while crouching in the dirt.

It is a heritage that is holding back so many of Begum's contemporaries, but not her.

I want "to give women their rights, the rights that they deserve, I have come out to help people and help the poor people," she tells me.

READ: Pakistanis to go to polls amid growing tension

After just a short conversation it is easy to see why she above others might be willing to raise herself up.

There is a strength and determination about her which she is all too aware she will need. "Dir is very conservative, but I came out because I wanted things to get better, so there can be peace, and end unemployment and to do something for our country."

It is a risky campaign made more dangerous by the Taliban. Where she comes from in Dir, they are never far away and she is challenging all that they stand for.

The Taliban don't want to see women educated, they want a status quo, even a regression where women will have a lesser role than Victorian children. Back then children were at least seen if not heard, the Taliban -- if they could -- would silence women forever and confine them to their homes.

As a woman it's hard because women are helpless and men are more confident so they have an advantage and can do anything
Nusrat Begum, Pakistan candidate

But Begum sees what's happening in Pakistan's bigger cities where women have even become government ministers. "The times have changed, there's a lot of progress, women are coming out, and going to school, going to their jobs. Some are engineers, some work with computers, some are teachers."

Her campaign is a tough one, a seven-year veteran of cricket star-turned-politician Imran Khan's party, she had hoped to be picked to represent him in the region. Instead that pick went to a man.

Khan's party officials tell me they have to respect candidates who've been with the fledgling party longest and put them forward. Begum fears backhanders have been paid by the other candidate so he can benefit from the boost party backing will undoubtedly bring him.

The facts may never be known. Khan's party is fighting in part on an anti-corruption ticket but if Begum struggles to win the support of Khan's party, which prides itself as progressive and pushing women's issues, it shows Begum's fight is far from done.

If she does make it to elected office, she knows exactly where to start to turn her region's centuries-old attitudes to women. "With education they can look after their children and do something for their people and country, moving forward."

Today, where Begum stands, that seems like a long shot, but in a generation, if she gets her way, old attitudes could fade and women assume a fuller role in shaping Pakistan's future.

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