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RIGHTS-PAKISTAN: Women Defy Militancy, Patriarchy

Beena Sarwar

KARACHI, Mar 8 2009 (IPS) - The challenges and contradictions facing Pakistani women were never so apparent as now. While striding ahead in a country that gave the world its first female, Muslim prime minister, they also face the threat of terrorism which claimed her as a victim.

Still from the documentary film 'Mukhtar Mai: The Struggle for Justice' by Beena Sarwar  Credit: Credit: Beena Sarwar/IPS

Still from the documentary film 'Mukhtar Mai: The Struggle for Justice' by Beena Sarwar Credit: Credit: Beena Sarwar/IPS

Bhutto was assassinated on Dec. 27, 2007 as she emerged from an election rally. Many attribute her murder to the extremists fighting the state in the name of religion.

The ongoing militancy raging in the tribal areas of the country’s north-west along the Afghan border, as well as the Taliban’s inroads in the settled Swat Valley just a hundred miles from the capital Islamabad, have led to over 100,000 girls being forced to discontinue their education.

Over a hundred girls’ schools in Swat and over 150 in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) bordering Afghanistan have been destroyed, and another 62 closed down in Swat after threats by the Taliban.

A recent short documentary by ‘The New York Times,’ ‘Class Dismissed in Swat Valley,’ (on its website profiles Ziauddin Yousafzai, the owner and principal of a private school and his daughter, Malala,11.

In the documentary, filmed in February, Malala wants to be a doctor but cannot continue and is overcome by emotion at the thought of not being able to pursue her dream. The following day, her father’s school, where she studies, is to be closed down because of the Taliban ‘deadline’ for the closure of girls’ schools in the Valley.

Since then, a ‘peace deal’ by the government with a cleric whose son-in-law heads the Pakistani Taliban has allowed schools in Swat to reopen. However, turnout has been low. The physical destruction of school buildings by the Taliban, and in some cases by army shelling, has made it impossible for many schools to reopen.

The diary of a seventh-grade Swat schoolgirl, writing under the pen name ‘Gul Makai,’ in BBC Urdu Online (in translation on the BBC English website) also poignantly highlights the human side of the issue.

On Jan. 3, Gul Makai wrote, only 11 out of 27 students attended class “because of the Taliban’s edict” banning female education. Three of her friends had already moved to Peshawar, Lahore and Rawalpindi with their families. Her own family later moved to Islamabad.

The NYT documentary pushed a Pakistan-born writer Shehla Anjum in Anchorage, Alaska, to contact Ziauddin. He told her that he has since reopened his school, but does not know what the future holds.

Malala, who still dares to hope, told Anjum: “I won’t let the Taliban stop me. I will get an education somehow. Maybe in Swat, maybe somewhere else.” (‘Taliban wages war against girls’ education in Pakistan’, Anchorage Daily News, Mar. 4, 2009.)

Zubeida Mustafa, a senior journalist and women’s rights activist, says that school authorities in Mingora, Swat’s largest city, had confirmed to her that private schools had opened after the agreement, but attendance was thin, especially in the secondary classes.

“Many parents are afraid to send their girls to school while others have left their homes to move to other parts of the country and have still not returned,” she said, writing in the daily ‘Dawn’ on Mar. 4.

The Taliban also banned women from going to the markets and, in January, they murdered the famed dancer Shabana in Mingora, two km from the present capital Saidu Sharif, Mingora’s twin city.

After armed men dragged her away from her home in Banr Bazaar, Shabana reportedly begged them to shoot her rather than slit her throat. Her murderers pumped her body with bullets and left it strewn with bank notes, CDs of her dance performances and pictures from her photo album.

The Taliban later broadcast a radio warning on one of its FM stations that any other girl found performing in Banr Bazaar would be killed “one by one”.

‘The Telegraph,’ London, reported from Mingora that Shabana’s murder prompted the last of the bazaar’s dancing girls, many of whom had trained under her wing and lived in her house, to load their belongings on to trucks and “flee to the relative safety of Karachi and Lahore.”

“More than 1,000 girls have now fled, though some who remained told The Daily Telegraph that Shabana had paid the price for publicly defying the Taliban’s radio mullahs, and that she had ignored personal warnings to stop the performances and the training of young dancers in her home,” said the report ‘Taliban underlines its growing power with killing of ‘dancing girl’ in Pakistan,’ Jan. 11, 2009).

A theatre and dance festival, that kicks off on Mar. 7 in the southern port city of Karachi, Pakistan’s business capital, symbolises the defiance with which some Pakistani women meet this threat.

Sheema Kermani, the well-known actor, dancer and activist who heads Tehrik-e-Niswan (Women’s Movement) group that is organising the festival, told IPS that she would dedicate the dance performance on Mar. 8 to “those who have been killed and those who are fighting the militants”.

“What is happening in Swat and the northern areas is so horrifying that it’s hard to think about it. In the back of our heads is the thought that tomorrow it’s going to be here.”

Kermani, who often gives talks at higher education institutions, says that she comes across boys and girls “who have the strength and the energy to want to do things to change how things are, to move ahead and push for their personal liberties’’.

Girls routinely score well in medical, science, business and engineering colleges and at secondary educational institutes around the country.

Besides the violence being perpetuated by the militants, there is the ongoing violence that women routinely face in this patriarchal society, for defying traditional customs and values.

Men also use women’s bodies for revenge to bring ‘the enemy’ down, as happened with Mukhtar Mai, a rural woman in Punjab province who has become an international symbol of the struggle for women’s rights.

Gang-raped in 2002 for a supposed transgression by her younger brother Shakoor, then about 14 years old, she refused to give in to the ‘shame’ of her position and has since fought an ongoing court case against her rapists rather than commit suicide or leave her home as most women in similar positions are forced to do.

Instead, Mukhtar Mai had the innate courage and wisdom to focus not on herself but on others. She used the ‘compensation’ cheque provided by the government to build the first school in her village.

Her courage inspired young women from nearby villages to flock to her school as teachers where they also earn some much needed income.

“I realised that those who supported me were the educated people,” says Mukhtar, explaining why she felt education was so important. “Before this, women had no other option but to work in the fields.”

Her story reflects the changes taking place in Pakistani society as well as all that remains stagnant within it. Women are speaking out all over the country, attempting to exercise their rights to personal autonomy, education, choice of life partner and employment.

Those who acquiesce to their family wishes at the expense of their own aspirations do not make news. Those who refuse make media headlines not for their defiance but for their families’ violent responses.

For the women of Pakistan, it remains an uphill battle but one that is not over yet. “We have to continue struggling for our spaces where we can,” said Kermani. “Giving up would mean total defeat.”

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