Tharparker is a forgotten speck in southern Pakistan. It is defined by grass thatched roofs and a dysfunctional feudal-electoral system that has always undermined 1.6 million of its residents. Then, of course, there is the fact that half of its population is Hindu in Muslim majority Pakistan. In addition to the fact, the region is immensely water-stressed and the only transport mode is to sit on a donkey and set off to a far-flung hospital in case of a medical emergency, it is also incredibly miserable to be a woman there.
Most women in Thar play along like a cactus adapts to the barren land. They take on a silent disposition and live in abject poverty and the world’s highest infant mortality rate. Sunita Parmer is also a water-fetching, colorful-clothes-wearing and bone-tired woman from Tharparker. However, one day she decided its no fun being bitter-prickly cacti.
Sunita Parmer is the masters-level graduate who took on the system that her ancestors have cowed down to. She decided to stop pleading with feudal lords to have some mercy for her marginalized community. “The men come into power and solve all the men-problems and leave.” She took on the established Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) candidate Maharaj Mahesh Malani and said that it was time for a change.
She is now the first Hindu woman contesting on a general seat from Thar. Sunita filed her nomination papers as an independent candidate from PS-56 and thus challenged some of the most anti-women practices: forced marriage; kidnapping; rape; forced religious conversion and an extreme form of disrespect for women’s opinion.
The former chief minister of Sindh, Arbab Ghulam Rahim thought he was offering conclusive evidence that women are weak when he said that all women are afraid of lizards. Sunita is neither afraid of creepy crawlies nor the far more dangerous political incumbents that stop at nothing to show a woman her place in a patriarchal pecking order. Amidst immense pressure to immediately withdraw her nomination, this mother-of-three has been an unrelenting mighty oak. She said, “The women of Thar are no longer feeble.”
Maybe this will be a brand new ending. Maybe women of Thar will defeat the men who only solve men-problems. Maybe it will not end well. By running for the 2018 elections, Sunita has, however, already won the battle of bravery, spirit, and soul against that of oppression. By refusing to leave politics despite continuous harassment against her community, she has given other women across Pakistan the confidence to defeat sinister power politics that excludes women.
Although Sunita has a chance to disrupt the majoritarian order of Tharparker given that more than 70 per-cent of the vote-bank included Menghwar, Bheel and Kohli Hindu communities, the fact remains that the culture of violence is tough to push against. She is venerable, and sadly courage is not always strong-enough armor.
There is no doubt about the fact that if democracy is allowed to work unhindered it is precisely designed to give sincere grassroots independent candidates power to change a Thar that is deprived of basic health and education.
The problem is that democracy has a pre-requisite – freedom. It sure is difficult to learn to be free, just as it is convenient to keep marginalized peoples down. Another woman like Sunita called Krishna Kumari Kolhi became the first-ever Hindu Dalit woman, Senator. Kolhi, 39, is also from Thar and is a member of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). It could be argued that Kolhi set the stage for Sunita. Freedom is thankfully made up of contagious chemical elements.
The new Hindu marriage law has helped slow down the endemic problem of forced marriages among young non-consenting Hindu girls. With more women like Sunita embracing their religious identity as Pakistani citizens that are equal in the eyes of the law, there is now more aware that the feeble have legal options. This ultimately also helps end the socially sanctioned practice of forced conversions from Hinduism to Islam.
When Pakistan was created, its founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah said, “Hindus will cease to be Hindus and Muslims will cease to be Muslims, not in a religious sense because that is the personal faith of an individual, but in a political sense as citizens of one state.” These elections are calling forth a genocidal flood against minority communities like the Hindus because campaign language is heavy with populism and religious bigotry. Amidst this, Sunita is reminding us that we must revert to honoring the international human rights charters the country is a signatory to. We must be a Muslim majority country that is inclusive because this land’s history obliterates the oppressive regimes time and time again.
Sunita is a huge force against the unwinding of our status-quo politics. Even the most ardent supporters of this political game are now saying celebrating the exclusion of minorities has gone too far.