Elections 2013 – Women NA Candidates: Zartaj Gul Akhwand

An edited version of this article was first published in The Express Tribune on May 6, 2013 as part of a short series of profiles of women contesting the National Assembly elections on a general seat.

Islamabad – Sardar Maqsood Khan Leghari is a formidable candidate in NA-172, one of the three National Assembly seats in Punjab’s Dera Ghazi Khan (D. G. Khan) district. A five-term member of the Punjab Assembly and former member of the National Assembly, Leghari is also the cousin of former president Farooq Leghari. Farooq Leghari’s son, Awais Leghari, a former federal minister, is also running for the same seat independently.

The Legharis have held this D. G. Khan constituency under their thumb for years.

But now they face an unlikely challenger to their family seat in the form of 28-year-old Zartaj Gul Akhwand, the Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) candidate in NA-172.

Akhwand appears to be a novice but committed political worker who through hard work and pure luck has found herself on the big stage, fighting against the political elite.

“Why should we be ruled by these dynasties?” she said. “Middle class should also have participation in the electoral process.”

Her brief political journey has taken her from being a youth wing office-bearer to a senior vice president and finally the National Assembly candidate on a general seat. She is one of only three women candidates PTI has fielded on a general seat for the National Assembly for the 2013 elections.

NA-172 is part-urban and part-tribal constituency and Akhwand is using her academic background to rally the young, educated residents and her tribal heritage to muster support from the Baloch constituents of the rural, tribal areas.

Akhwand, originally from North Waziristan, studied in Lahore first at the Queen’s Mary College for her undergraduate degree and then for her master’s at the National College of the Arts.

In Lahore, back in 2005, she said she used to volunteer at the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Hospital as a student and soon became an ardent of supporter of Imran Khan’s philanthropy and leadership. She wanted to vote for PTI in 2008 but the party decided to boycott the elections.

When she got married to Akhwand Humayun Raza Khan of D. G. Khan in 2010, her husband was already on the PTI bandwagon.

From then on, she and her husband, who is now running on the PTI ticket for a provincial assembly seat from D.G. Khan, built up the party’s presence in the constituency from scratch.

“They call us the golden couple of PTI,” she giggled at one point during the interview.

She said she has faced no discrimination or security issue campaigning in the constituency’s rural areas.

“I have received a kind of privilege,” she said. “The tribals call me their daughter and they are impressed that someone with no feudal backing has ventured out into the rural areas to ask after them.”

But among the busy campaign schedule, there are moments when she reflects on how fast things have moved.

“A few years ago, I had not even dreamt that I would be contesting the elections for the National Assembly,” she said.

Her candidacy is a reality, however, and education, health and municipal issues are her top priorities for the constituency. She mentioned the ghost schools in NA-127, lack of education and health facilities for women and the horrible state of roads and said she intends to fix them if she comes to power.

Akhwand also wants to help the underprivileged communities in South Punjab and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which she believes have been kept in a state of neglect by the elected leaders.

“People want to get rid of the Sardari system but they never had a choice before,” she said, repeating the slogans of change and new candidates, which the PTI is banking on to win. “I am part of the youth and I think the youth will vote this year to register its presence in mainstream politics.”

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