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Whither Swat's women?

Qurat ul ain Siddiqui , 22 February 2009

WHAT happened with Shikarpur’s Maria Shah, a recent victim of an acid attack, may be considered as a random act of violence but the degree of resolve and perfection with which misogyny is being systematized in Swat is simply unprecedented in Pakistan.

Banning education for females and specifically targeting girls’ schools was, to look at the current situation on the ground, only the prelude to what is turning out to be a conscious establishment of a system of violence and sadism.

With the destruction of over 180 schools in the valley, thousands of female teachers are without a source of income and some 80,000 female students are no longer getting an education.

However, it is not ‘only’ women’s education and livelihood that are at stake here. Women can also no longer venture outside their homes without a male relative (definitely a mehram) and it is mandatory for couples to carry their nikah-namaas or they are asking for trouble. The Swat Taliban have also announced that families with unmarried females should come forward in mosques so that the women/girls may be married off – to the Taliban. Or else, they are to be forcibly married (read raped).

So would any Pakistani woman want to wake up the following morning only to find out she’s in Swat? Hopefully not.

The government has done little, if not nothing, to address this ‘institutionalisation’ of gender-specific violence in the once idyllic valley. And while a visit to the region by some in the national cabinet was in the offing, the NWFP government’s recent decision to implement ‘sharia’ in the area seems highly unlikely to rescue the population from this despotic setup.

What was done to Bakht Zeba, a 45-year-old resident of Mingora and a former member of the Swat district council, should have been enough to serve as a wake up call for those entrusted with the security of our lives and properties.
Zeba’s criticism of the Swat Taliban’s anti-women measures was more than enough to incur the Talibs’ wrath. On Nov 26, Bakht Zeba was dragged out of her Mingora home and was shot in the head after being brutally flogged.

A mere three hour drive (less than 200 miles) from Islamabad, Swat has transmogrified into a horrific embodiment and just when one dares to think that it can’t get any worse, a whole new horrible bunch of stunts is pulled only to keep one’s optimism in check.

The rather recent decree regarding bringing unmarried girls/women to give them away in marriage to the Taliban is a truly shocking one. Going a few more steps ahead than the Afghan Taliban, this group has clearly expressed its disregard for anything and everything with a semblance of civilised behaviour. So really, what form of the sharia will satiate their appetite for brutality?

Despite the ’military operation’ before the ‘ceasefire,’ the government failed to tackle the militants, nor could it effectively address the problems that these criminal elements, bent upon destroying the region’s social fabric, have been posing.

What bigger horror is needed to realise that what began in Swat (a firmly settled area, mind you!) might as well penetrate inside the rest of the state?
The terror that the women in Swat have experienced is appalling enough and if this trend that has captured the valley is not dismantled, it is likely to advance itself, putting at risk a healthy and respectable survival of at least 50 per cent of the country’s population.

The recent murderous attacks against women in Kohat, an pronouncement ordering Quetta women to cover their faces, and of course how can we forget — right in the middle of Islamabad — the Red Mosque’s self-styled executioners of God’s law, were not actions working themselves about in isolation. Swat, at present, appears to be the culmination of all the madness that has gone on, that is ensuing, and that, if not eliminated, is logically bound to get only worse.

We, and especially the modern urban women amongst us, painstakingly working it up in our cubicles, can no longer remain in denial of what may very well be in store for us.

While one expected the government to support and defend women development initiatives in the region (taken up by community workers such as Bakht Zeba), the government has instead made the Swatis even more vulnerable to exploitation. Who knows what version of religious law will Swat be governed under? And while Mr Hoti, the mayor of Peshawar, just barely, has slapped aside suggestions that Swat may end up turning into Taliban’s Afghanistan, his sanguinity is no longer compelling. This ‘sharia’ deal directly involves an organization that the government of Pakistan banned in Jan 2002. And strangely enough, that ban has not been lifted to this day.

These ‘political’ developments have only strengthened the militants, when simultaneously, a show of the righteous’ strength was also witnessed in Karachi on Feb 14 — resulting in the postponement of a perfectly innocent musical evening. However, it is, as some of us hope, highly unlikely that a system of force and repression, along the lines of the one in Swat, can be made operational in the country’s metropolitan centres and while several women amongst the urban, educated lot have strongly expressed their censure of the military operations in the northwest, they are not going to allow neither criminals nor the holier than thou(s) to dictate their lifestyles.
Given a closer look, the so-called isolated acid attacks, rapes and other gender-specific acts of violence are not so isolated. The Swat Taliban’s crusade against women is not some alien system that sprang up out of nothing. It exists in relation to a certain worldview at large — a worldview that power must be exercised and sustained as extremely as it can.

At this point in time, not only has the government of Pakistan almost-officially disowned Swat, it has also isolated its women even further. But what it must not forget is that today when the Taliban are strongly entrenched in the region (more than ever before), Islamabad is not far away.

Sunday, 22 Feb, 2009