Islamabad — Ismat Raza Shahjahan, a retired international finance specialist and a politician for 33 years, is finally contesting her first National Assembly election from NA-54 in the federal capital.
Ms Shahjahan’s story, as she claims, is not that of a victim but of a fighter.
Born to a poor yet progressive and politically-aware family in the small Takht-e-Nasrati village in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Karak district, she gained political consciousness at a young age.
Now she is contesting elections on a ticket of the Awami Workers Party (AWP) and is among the 176 women candidates across the country who are running for a National Assembly seat through direct election.
Ms Shahjahan said she entered politics while in university. She was active in student politics and when student unions were banned under Ziaul Haq’s martial law regime, she joined the communist Democratic Students Federation (DSF) in 1986.
Her work with the DSF introduced her to the Communist Party of Pakistan, which she soon joined and started actively working on its Muttahida Labour Federation.
During her time with the party, she also established the Democratic Women’s Association — a feminist front in the province — and published the progressive journal Leekwal. In the early ’90s, she put her political activism on hold and flew to The Netherlands for her graduate studies.
When she returned, she said she saw the Left broken in Pakistan.
“We have been trying ever since to revive the Left and with a coalition of five parties, we formed the AWP in 2012,” Ms Shahjahan said.
She is now the deputy general secretary of the party and aims to promote progressive politics in Pakistan.
She said Pakistan is a patriarchal country where women are not considered leaders until and unless they belong to an influential family. But according to her, the gender politics of the Left and Right differ greatly.
“I am not the party leader because of a quota,” she said. “I have achieved this position through a lot of struggle and not through affirmative action.”
Ms Shahjahan and her party are aware of the class dynamics of popular politics in Pakistan.
“Currently the political structure in Pakistan sees elections as an investment. Billionaires want state power, win contracts, and increase their business,” she said. “There is no level playing field where labourers, the middle class, the salaried class or women can fight in elections.”
Ms Shahjahan said the parliament has never had representation from the poor of the country.
“We are fighting for a people’s democracy in Pakistan,” she said.
Her 11-point manifesto for Islamabad includes focus on affordable housing, environmental and water conservation, labour rights, and sustainable energy among other concerns.
Her main focus is on letting the poor have their due rights. Over 300,000 people live in 42 slums in Islamabad but the government does not care for them, she said. If elected, she said she will help build labour colonies, regularise and develop slum areas, and work to increase the minimum wage for domestic workers.
Ms Shahjahan is also aiming for a uniform education system for all.
“We are against the class disparity in education,” she said. “Everyone deserves the same education and we want to introduce a scientific, democratic, modern, and secular curriculum.”
Her election campaign has not been easy. Her party’s website was taken down and they had to create a new domain, she said. She also claimed the police confiscated their campaign material and arrested her supporters.
“Ramna Police Station of G11 called me twice and sent men to my home summoning me to come and sign a paper that says I will not use a speaker, won’t rally or put banners up,” she said. “How is that democratic?”
Still, Ms Shahjahan is not one to give up.
She said her party is striving for the poor of the country and will continue fighting through the strength of her party’s manifesto.