KARACHI: When Parveen Sheikh last month revealed plans to contest local elections from her impoverished neighborhood of Saleemabad in southern Pakistan, most people in her family and larger community opposed the idea, and many even ridiculed her.
What chance, they said, did a poor woman have in elections in an area where female candidates were a rarity and few women went out to vote?
The mother of six, however, traveled alone on May 15 to the election office in her hometown of Khairpur and submitted nomination papers as an independent candidate for a municipal committee seat.
On June 26, she surprised her community once again when she bagged a clean victory over her rival, a candidate of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the ruling party of Sindh. Sheikh got 430 votes while the runner-up, Manthar Sheikh, got 190.
Around 24,500 candidates contested the June 26 elections for 7,164 local body seats in 14 districts of Sindh.
“I showed resilience, asked no one and just submitted my [nomination] forms,” Sheikh told Arab News in a phone interview.
The newly elected councilor had the support of another woman, Shehnaz Sheikh, under whose mentorship Sheikh had been working on small community welfare projects for the last three years.
“Madam Shehnaz told me, ‘If you want to contest, then stand firm’. She raised my morale and encouraged me,” Sheikh said of her mentor, who financially supports poor laborers in arranging the weddings of their daughters, helps them start small businesses and installs water supply pipelines in poor communities.
It was Shehnaz who helped Sheikh design her election campaign and gather community backing.
“When I would go to my people, visit their homes, they would say ‘you’re our child. We will vote for you, no more for the feudal lords’,” Sheikh said.
Soon, her husband and brother also came out to support her “but only after they saw I was getting immense respect from the people,” Sheikh said. “Our laborers and women came to my help and did door-to-door campaigns with me as late as 2am in the night.”
Sheikh, who is the wife of a constable at the federal income tax department and the daughter of a donkey-cart vendor who sells food and toys, said her hometown had no electricity, water or sewerage system.
Resolving the problems of her impoverished community, she added, was now her top priority.
“I could not study beyond primary [5th grade], because we could not afford it. None of my nine siblings studied either,” said Sheikh, who used to sell clothes on a cart to make ends meet.
“My elder daughter, Saman Sheikh, and other children are studying because I know the importance of education. As a councilor, I will work for the education of women and provide people with drinking water.”
In a message to “electables,” or longtime politicians from the area, she said they needed to recognize that people no longer wanted to be ruled by feudal lords and it was time for them to “change their mindsets” according to the demands of the public.
“Don’t consider the poor inferior,” she said. “When you give respect to the poor, it doesn’t reduce yours but instead makes you more respectable in the eyes of the people.”
Sheikh said her victory had also proved one didn’t need support or funding from a major political party to win.
“When I won, I was crying and my father was also crying as it was unbelievable,” she said.
When asked if she had a message for other women, Sheikh said:
“The basic thing is your spirit, which must always remain high. And when the people are with you, no one can defeat you.”