Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Population

PAKISTAN: Militancy Takes On a Female Face

Zofeen Ebrahim

KARACHI, Jan 17 2011 (IPS) - On December 25, a female suicide bomber, not more than 18 years of age, blew herself up killing at least 47 people and injuring 105 others.

Militant women in the standoff with security forces at the Jamiah Hafsa next to Lal Masjid in Karachi. Credit: Asad Zaidi

Militant women in the standoff with security forces at the Jamiah Hafsa next to Lal Masjid in Karachi. Credit: Asad Zaidi

The target of what is believed to be the first suicide bombing by a woman in Pakistan was a United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) food distribution centre in Khar, a tribal region of Bajaur, near the Afghan border.

This rekindled fears – first experienced in Jan. 2010 when 12-year-old Meena Gul, a would-be suicide bomber, was apprehended by Pakistan security forces while fleeing her captors – that the Taliban was recruiting women as well.

The Pakistan military launched an offensive against the militants in the region in late 2008. The area was declared clear six months later and a follow-up operation began in Jan. 2010. Despite a sustained military campaign, violence persists and the government has been unable to cleanse the area of the militants.

“It is not really understandable why the army and paramilitary forces are unable to control the militants in the tribal areas,” says Lahore-based Hasan Askari Rizvi, a defence analyst.

“Either the militants have strong support from outside, i.e. from and through Afghanistan, or they have sympathisers in the Pakistan civilian administration and military establishment,” he suspects.

After the incident, which U.S. President Barrack Obama termed an “affront to the people of Pakistan and to all humanity” the WFP has temporarily closed all four of its distribution centres.

The woman was wearing a burqa, a head-to-toe veil, and her gender was confirmed by security personnel to the media.

Azam Tariq, spokesperson of the Pakistani Taliban, claiming responsibility for the bombing, told CNN that the attack was launched in response to an anti- Taliban militia group that had been forged. “All anti-Taliban forces, army and security forces are our target,” he told the network.

Gul told authorities that she had been trained under the watchful eye of her Taliban commander/brother, and that her younger sister had carried out a suicide attack in Afghanistan.

“Pakistan’s security agencies will have problems in security checks of women because they neither have enough electronic checking systems nor female security officers,” says Askari. It also shows the militants are one step ahead of the security agencies.

To Shuja Nawaz, director of the Washington D.C.- based Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, and a leading authority on the Pakistani military, female suicide bombers do not come as a surprise. He recounts female Tamil Tigers’ exploits during Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict.

It could also be the kinds of victims being targeted. “When the militants come under pressure by the military, they choose soft targets,” and thus the emergence of this pattern, explains Nawaz.

“It was to be expected,” agrees Rahimullah Yusufzai, a veteran journalist. “They follow no rules of the war or the Pushtun tradition of warfare. They have targeted places of worship, funerals, the elderly and the women and children.”

“Extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances are on the rise and entire families of alleged militants are punished and tortured,” Yusufzai says, and warns that this can further stoke feelings of revenge and “radicalise” women.

Countering terrorism has become an extremely tough internal problem, says Askari. “If Pakistan can control it in the next five years, it will be an achievement.

So where is Pakistan going wrong?

According to Askari, religious orthodoxy is the bedrock of Islamic militancy, but most people, including the policy makers, are “unable to see this linkage and do not work toward discouraging religious extremism and orthodoxy that helps militancy to sustain itself.”

According to Nawaz, Pakistan needs to take a serious look at its vision and decide what kind of a state it wants to be. “Will it rely on its society and economy for its longer-term strength or on a nuclear deterrent alone?” he asks.

It is important, says Nawaz, to “leverage Pakistani entrepreneurship to create a vibrant economy” domestically, to then entice foreign investment. In fact, “re-examining trade relations with India” would strengthen Pakistan’s economy and defence.”

If he were asked to devise a plan to cleanse militancy, Nawaz says that he would get to the “root cause” and revamp the education system at all levels. “I would inject money into madrassahs [Islamic seminaries] so they become broader in their academic teachings and provide more than just religious education,” Nawaz says.

“In the long run education and development are a must,” agrees Askari. He, however, points out: “What you teach in the name of education is also important.”

In addition to bringing reform in education Nawaz also suggests using Saudi and Western assistance to “buy back weapons”; create vocational training programmes; provide “stipends to former jihadi fighters and their families”; and “insurance against any slippage of commitment to drop their militancy.”

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