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Pakistan's 'Wild West' Province Finally Gains Right to Vote - for Men

Here in Pakistan's "Wild, Wild North," tribesmen openly manufacture heroin. They fire guns to celebrate weddings, settle scores, or simply relieve boredom.

Small wonder, then, that Pakistanis label the region illaqa ghair, or alien territory. In fact, it has been deemed so ungovernable and uncivilized that its citizens have been denied the right to vote.

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But this year, all that changed. During last month's elections, the fiercely traditional tribesmen of the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) lined up to cast their votes for the first time. Whether this taste of democracy has turned them into citizens has yet to be seen.

Administration of this tribal region has changed little since British colonial days. And since gaining independence in 1947, 20,000 tribal chiefs selected eight representatives to the federal parliament.

"For us tribal people, Pakistan has finally become independent - 50 years after independence. We are free now because we have the right to vote," says Anar Gul, a vendor in Bara, a dusty city near Peshawar.

A decision by President Farooq Leghari - prompted partly by criticism from human rights activists and foreign donors - to allow the area to vote was considered a significant first step.

Democracy, however, will not come easily to this region. Maulana Abdul Hadi, a cleric who refuses to accept that women can have a role outside the home, said last month that women would not be allowed to vote.

The rough gun culture of the province, along with widespread poverty, has kept the region depressed. Government officials concede that since independence, less than 2,000 industrial jobs have been created there.

Most people either live off their small farms, work as smugglers, or are involved in the lucrative drug trade for which the NWFP is notorious. The province processes opium grown across the border in Afghanistan, and diplomats here say it is the principal source of manufacturing much of the heroin coming out of the South Asia.

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Senior Pakistani officials concede that poverty and illiteracy are major problems that will impede the growth of democracy. "Much more will need to be done for the development of the tribal areas," says Gohar Ayub Khan, Pakistan's foreign minister, who is also responsible for tribal affairs.

Despite the government's good intentions, many critics say that the lifestyle in the NWFP is decades behind the rest of Pakistan and that voting rights alone will not solve many local problems. The undisputed power of the local chieftains will take years to dilute, they say.

But Pakistan's human rights activists, who campaigned for years to give tribespeople the right to vote, insist that the recent elections have marked a new beginning for the territory, which will eventually weaken the hold of the tribal leaders. "These elections are an important beginning. Eventually, there has to be a people's movement and they [tribesmen] will send people [to the parliament] who will speak for them," says Asma Jehangir, head of the privately fund Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

While government officials accept that the right to vote eventually will usher in a new era, many aren't sure what will happen next.

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