A stone’s throw from the mountains where Taliban run the show, a Pashtun pinup-turned-politician is fighting a right-wing Islamist for the district seat in parliament. It’s a move that is drawing both applause and death threats – and highlighting Pakistan’s dual nature ahead of historic elections this weekend.
The city of Dera Ismail Khan, situated in the southern part of Pakistan's northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, is racked by sectarian violence and militant attacks. The conservative region borders Waziristan, which has been under the Taliban’s influence for a decade.
It’s not a place one would expect to produce a national sex symbol, let alone supporters willing to vote for her – it might be considered similar to the US Bible Belt region voting in Pamela Anderson for Congress. But as Musarrat Shaheen campaigns door-to-door in the last days before her country prepares to vote for a new government May 11, her fight against Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman, who heads a faction of his own right-wing Islamist party, Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam, can be seen as a microcosm of Pakistan’s two sides.
Pakistan has strong religious tendencies, but also one of the most active secular strains of politics. It has had a small number of women in positions of power, including prime minister, for decades, ensuring constant efforts in parliament to promote the rights of women, and yet it is one of the most dangerous countries for women. Pakistanis are overwhelmingly worried about corruption in the government, the energy crisis, and rule of law, yet according to polls, most don’t plan on voting.
"It is an interesting example," says Shabbir Cheema, a civil society expert at the East-West Center in Honolulu, calling the political competition between the two contrasting characters a healthy process. "Only democracy can provide a mechanism for this type of political competition."
While Ms. Shaheen was dancing across screens and making the hit film for which she is most known, “Beautiful Atom Bomb,” in the 1980s, Mr. Rehman was rising to political prominence declaring the idea of women (in particular Benazir Bhutto) as head of state as being against sharia (Islamic) law – though he later joined Ms. Bhutto's government and tried to build a bridge between her and the Taliban.
Shaheen eventually left the film industry to form the Tehreek-e-Musawaat party (Movement for Equality) in the 1990s, to raise awareness women’s rights in the region.
In 1997 she had her first face off with Rehman when she became the first woman to run for a seat in parliament from this region. The race attracted media attention because of her very public jabs at the turbaned, bearded Rehman, who was also running. A third candidate ended up winning the race that year, and Shaheen’s political career never quite took off. She retired to the background of political life, considering herself a social worker and focused on starting up programs to help women and flood victims in the region.
But when it became clear that Rehman, reported to have close ties with the Taliban, was the main candidate running from her home district again, she says that friends, family, and fans prodded her to run her own campaign. Some 16 years after her first attempt, the number of women contesting seats across Pakistan has risen considerably (A total of 448 women are participating this year, compared with 73 in 2008 and 57 in 2002, according to Pakistan Today) but she is still the only woman to ever run for a seat from her district.
'A ray of hope'
On a recent weekday on the campaign trail, the former actress steps out of her red, bulletproof Pajero jeep into a small but enthusiastic crowd of some two-dozen supporters cheering pro-Shaheen slogans. She’s traded in her flashy costumes for traditional salwar kameez to campaign, but her famous wry smile and personality is on display as she makes her way into a home for a campaign meeting. She says she can’t campaign out in the open where larger crowds could gather – not because of the death threats against her, but out of concern some of her supporters would get hurt or killed.
“We firmly support Shaheen because other political leaders did not deliver during their tenure,” says Nasser Abbas, a milk seller. “She is a ray of hope for us to develop the area and to get rid people from the clutches of religious leaders and landlords.”
The frustration with the status quo that her supporters express is something she hopes to take advantage of. People want new schools, hospitals, infrastructure, and democracy, she says, adding that that is something she now has experience with.
Though others dismiss her candidacy as a joke, and Internet memes have popped up poking fun of the contrast that Rehman and Shaheen represent, Shaheen is undeterred.
“I am trying to fight against the mullahs [religious clerics] who are anti-women rights. They do not want women in public offices,” says Shaheen, who portrays her opponent as a religious cleric and says he is playing on the religious sentiments of the people.
By stepping out into the political light in the region, she is paving a path for women, and showing the rest of the country it can be done. “Only independent women like me can change this discriminatory attitude and uplift women’s status in Pakistan’s male-dominated society,” she says.
“I want to promote, empower, and educate womenfolk, which will help banish terrorism in the long run,” she says. “And I believe there will be no change while you have no [direct] representation of women in the assemblies.”
At the end of a long day of meetings in suburban Dera Ismail Khan, she says to a group of supporters: “Look, I’m risking my life to change your fortune and to give a better tomorrow to your kids. Now, it is your turn to support me against the extremist forces in the elections.”