During a break from a day-long training session held this week at a guesthouse in Peshawar, Sundas Shah, a 20-year-old student, said of the ballot: “This time, we have a ray of hope in our hearts.”
Everyone is aware of the risks. With 115 people killed in bomb and gun attacks on political parties since April, the election is being called the most violent in Pakistan’s history.
“The threat of violence is always near,” Ismail said as she was leaving the group’s headquarters.
She got into a car to head to a training session, and the mountains on the Afghan border, which edges Pakistan’s loosely governed tribal areas, loomed in the distance.
“We are very near to the tribal areas, so we hear the missiles and bomb blasts every day,” she said. “The biggest problem that we are facing is increasing militancy and religious extremism.”
The group has expanded beyond Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and last year began providing services to women and girls in southwestern Baluchistan province. This year, it plans to expand to neighboring Afghanistan.
Much of the organization’s time is spent reaching out to rural women who do not have access to a telephone or the Internet; the group’s members plan events and work through local contacts to establish credibility. Often, their success depends on how effectively they can convince husbands and fathers they are not a threat.
“They think promoting women and promoting pluralism is against Islam,” Ismail said.
Election observer Marjua Siddiqui, 22, described her parents as broad-minded people who taught her there is no difference between a daughter and a son. But her mother worries.
“She said, ‘Listen, daughter, you don’t have to be so bold,’ ” Siddiqui said.