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RIGHTS-PAKISTAN: Displaced Women Finally Speak Out Against Taliban

Zofeen Ebrahim

KARACHI, Pakistan, Aug 17 2009 (IPS) - "Burqa, burqa was all we heard [from the Taliban militants] in Swat, but when we ran, we were hardly covered and the whole world looked at us," said a woman from this conflict area, who now lives in a camp for the internally displaced people (IDPs).

The woman’s harrowing experience spoke of the extremely difficult conditions she and others went through in the hands of the Taliban in Swat. That they fled the conflict area without donning the burqa was an extreme act of survival.

The burqa is the traditional outer garment women in some Islamic societies wear from head to foot as part of their adherence to purdah, or the practice of preventing men from seeing women, which the Taliban strongly enforced. It has come to symbolize the Taliban oppression of women.

Her brief account–recounted to a woman activist visiting 22 government-designated camps set up for IDPs, in Swabi, bordering Swat, in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP)—was recorded and circulated widely through the Internet by Bushra Gohar, a parliamentarian from the Awami National Party that has formed the government in the NWFP.

Once renowned for its scenic beauty that served as a magnet to tourists, Swat has been rocked by violence due to the incessant fighting between the military and the militants of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Taliban umbrella group in Pakistan that is in conflict with the central government. Some three million people, including women, have fled Swat as the fighting continues.

The TTP initially tried to win the trust of the women. Maulana Fazalullah, who heads the TTP in Swat, used the illegal FM radio channels to win hearts and mind of the women cooped up in their homes all day.

"He used to talk about Islam, about praying five times a day, about going to the madressa and learning the Quran. We all thought he was a good man," the women in the camps said.

In the past two years or so, the TTP has brought untold miseries to the people of Swat, particularly the women, all in the name of Islam. They brook no opposition. One widow took her chadar (a wrap to cover oneself) off her head to show the visiting activist how the Taliban had cut off her hair (besides taking away her jewelry) as punishment for demanding her missing 12-year-old son back.

Any defiance resulted in the most barbaric of punishments, sources said, including beheadings and slaughter, the victims of which were then put on public display.

It is no wonder then that the Swat women in the camps were often forced to sit in silence, without anyone to console them, said the activist, expressing the lament of many of those who spoke to her. Terror had filled their hearts.

As though finding their collective voice for the first time, the women IDPs mustered the courage to talk, albeit in hushed, sometimes whispered, tones, about the sufferings inflicted on them by the Taliban, as they shared their experiences with their visitor(who requested anonymity) in whom they found sympathetic ears.

The displaced women’s hitherto untold stories—recounted to their newfound confidant inside a large tent in their camp—included rape of young women and cutting off of breasts, and of mothers incessantly pining for their young sons taken by the TPP members on a one-way trip to ‘jihad’ (holy war), their whereabouts unknown. Many said they later learned that their sons were used as "fodder" for suicide bombings.

Other heart-rending eye-witness accounts were of mothers whose sons and daughters died in their arms as the army indiscriminately fired mortars; of pregnant women who not only had to endure long walks toward the IDP camps but also had to give birth prematurely; and of the sick and the elderly forced into trucks like "animals."

Summing up what has happened to the women in Swat, celebrated Urdu novelist and writer, Zahida Hina, said: "Whenever Islamist groups want to enforce their kind of sharia (Islamic law), they do it through the barrel of the gun, and their first target, after their opponents, is always women."

"Sharia will give women their rightful place in society," said TPP spokesperson Muslim Khan in a telephone interview.

It is the same answer he had given in past phone conversations whenever he was asked about the militant group’s treatment of women. He argued that women’s visibility had resulted in the spread of vulgarity in society.

Khan has been in hiding since the military operation began on May 5. The government has offered a head money of Rs 10 million (US$ 0.12 million) for his capture (dead or alive), along with 19 other Taliban commanders.

The situation of Swat women "closely approximated what Afghan women faced between 1996 and 2000," said noted peace activist, Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy in an email exchange.

The TTP followed to the letter the guidelines set by their counterparts in Afghanistan, the other country where the Taliban movement has become a resilient force.

They disallowed girls over 13 from attending school, bombed nearly 200 schools, the majority of which were for girls. They relented only after the local administration and school management guaranteed the girls would wear the burqa. Women were forced to stop working in offices, factories and NGOs and those in the performing arts were banished from the area.

Much of the violence perpetrated in the Swat valley by the militants was directed at eradicating women's already very restricted public space, said rights activists.

"We were prisoners in our own homes as we could not move out without our men," the displaced women said. The army and the government, from whom they desperately sought help, turned a blind eye to them, they claimed.

"For two years we have been screaming for help, (but) the military and the Taliban have been sitting with each other, chatting," they said.

Even Pakistani civil society, including women’s groups, remained willfully silent, observers said. There were hardly any protests, including street actions. Some of the women’s groups are headed by those who had stood up against military dictator, Zia-ul Haq, in the early eighties, when, in his bid to Islamize Pakistan, he introduced the infamous Hudood Ordinances, a law in Pakistan which was widely regarded as biased against women.

Hina shares her insight on the issue: "A majority of women parliamentarians have been nominated. They have not come through an electoral process. Thus they cannot defy their party for fear they may lose favour fast with the party leaders. And if that happens, gone will be their salaries, the benefits and allowances, including free air time on television channels or attending a plethora of functions daily, where everyone wants a photo op with them."

Dr Saba Gul Khattak, director of the Islamabad-based Sustainable Development Policy Institute, explained: "The politics of fear this time is qualitatively different from Zia’s times. When there are so many betrayals at so many levels, ranging from political parties, the parliament, the president, the seventh largest military in the world standing helpless, is there any point coming to the streets?"

He said men are equally to be blamed: "Why didn’t the men speak out?" he asked.

Hoodbhoy describes the men’s silence in the face of the issue confronting women as "condemnable," saying it signified "fear and opportunism." (END/IPS/AP/HD/PR/CR/DV/ZE/TBB/09)

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