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Former Actress Takes On Pakistan's Leading Islamist Cleric

Former Pakistani film star turned politician Musarat Shaheen (right) in Islamabad in 2000
Former Pakistani film star turned politician Musarat Shaheen (right) in Islamabad in 2000
She was once the darling of millions of filmgoers. Today, she begs for votes in a dusty city in northwestern Pakistan.

Mussarat Shaheen is in the news for taking on the country's leading Islamist leader, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, whose conservative Jamiat-e Ulema Islam (Society of Muslim Clerics) wants to turn Pakistan into a Shari'a state through the ballot box.

Shaheen's election pitch is to expose Rehman's alleged corruption and hypocrisy to Dera Ismail Khan's predominantly conservative voters.

"Maulana Fazlur Rehman gets votes in the name of religion. But once elected, he only enjoys the perks and privileges of power," she told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal. "Now we will see how he wins."

Maulana Fazlur Rehman
Maulana Fazlur Rehman
Dera Ismail Khan, in the southern part of Pakistan's northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, is plagued by sectarian violence and Taliban attacks. It borders the Waziristan tribal regions, where the Taliban has exerted influence for a decade.

Shaheen says that she is often taunted, both because she is a woman and due to her former career. She says she has also heard that hard-line Islamists have declared that she should be killed for spreading obscenity.

"I have no security because the administration only worries about protecting Maulana and other rich candidates," she says. "I will be proud if I die for the rights of the people of Dera Ismail Khan and Pakistan."

Shaheen was once a leading heroine in Pakistan Pashto film industry, also known as Pollywood. She was known for her raunchy dance steps.

After nearly two decades on the silver screen, she formed her own political party in the 1990s called Tehreek-e Massawat, Urdu for Movement for Equality.

But her political career never took off. She ran against Rehman in the same constituency in 1997. The contest attracted a lot of media attention because of her public swipes at the bearded cleric. Both lost the contest to a third candidate.

Shaheen now thinks she will win the election on May 11 because Rehman has been deceiving people in the name of religion for decades. She declared him a "flop" actor.

-- Abubakar Siddique