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Human Rights

Women Take the Lead in Baloch Civil Resistance

Mahrang Baloch during a public appearance. The 30-year-old has emerged as a prominent figure in the Baloch movement. Credit: Mehrab Khalid/IPS

Mahrang Baloch during a public appearance. The 30-year-old has emerged as a prominent figure in the Baloch movement. Credit: Mehrab Khalid/IPS

ROME, Jul 4 2024 (IPS) - A 30-year-old woman speaks before tens of thousands gathered in southern Pakistan. Men of all ages listen to her speech in almost reverential silence, many holding up her portrait and chanting her name: Mahrang Baloch.

This took place on January 24 in Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan, 900 kilometers southwest of Islamabad. The large, predominantly male crowd that gathered to welcome a group of women was unexpected for many. However, the reasons behind it were compelling.

They were welcomed back home after leading a women’s march towards Islamabad that lasted several months, demanding justice and reparations for missing Baloch people. In a phone conversation with IPS from Quetta, Mahrang Baloch provides the context behind what became known as the ‘march against the Baloch genocide’.

“For two decades, Pakistani security forces have been conducting a brutal military operation against political activists, dissenters, journalists, writers, and even artists to suppress the rebellion for an independent Balochistan, resulting in thousands of disappearances.”

Divided across the borders of Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan, the Baloch people number between 15 and 20 million, with their own language and culture.

Following Britain’s withdrawal from India, they declared their own state in 1947, even before Pakistan did. However, seven months later, that territory was annexed by Islamabad. Today, they live in the country’s largest and most sparsely populated province in the country, also the richest in resources, yet plagued by poverty and violence.

Mahrang Baloch, a surgeon by profession, recalls being fifteen years old when her father, an administration official known for his political activism, was arrested in 2009. Two years later, his body was found in a ditch after being savagely mutilated.

There is no Baloch family that has not lost one of their own in this conflict,” says the prominent activist. Remaining silent, however, doesn’t seem to be an option for them.

“We at the Baloch Unity Committee (BYC) will fight against the Baloch genocide and defend Baloch national rights with public power in the political arena. However, we will continue our struggle outside the so-called parliament of Pakistan, which lacks a true mandate from the people and facilitates the Baloch genocide,” explains the mass leader.

 

Sammi Deen Baloch in Dublin after receiving a human rights award last June. She has not heard from her father since his kidnapping in 2009. (Photo provided by SDB)

Sammi Deen Baloch in Dublin after receiving a human rights award last June. She has not heard from her father since his kidnapping in 2009. (Photo provided by SDB)

 

Harassment

International organizations such as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch have consistently accused Pakistani security forces of committing serious human rights violations, including arbitrary detentions and extrajudicial executions.

Pakistani authorities declined to respond to questions posed by IPS via email. Meanwhile, the Voice for Missing Baloch People (VBMP), a local platform, cites more than 8,000 cases of enforced disappearances in the last two decades.

The secretary general of that organization is Sammi Deen Baloch, a 25-year-old Baloch woman who led last winter’s march to Islamabad alongside Mahrang Baloch. Baloch is a common surname in the region. The two women are not related.

Sammi Deen also participated in previous marches conducted in 2010, 2011 and 2013. Her father disappeared in 2009, and she has not heard from him ever since. “Fifteen years later, I still don’t know if I am an orphan, and my mother doesn’t know if she is a widow either,” says the young activist.

Last May, Sammi Deen travelled to Dublin (Ireland) to collect the Asia Pacific Human Rights Award, which is given annually to outstanding human rights defenders.

However, bringing Balochistan into the international spotlight always comes at a cost.

“They resort to all kinds of strategies to silence us, from smear campaigns to threats which are also directed against our families. They even file false police reports against us constantly,” Sammi Deen Baloch told IPS over the phone from Quetta.

Mahrang Baloch visited Norway last June after receiving an invitation from the PEN Club International, a global association of writers with consultative status at the UN. Even in the Scandinavian country she was harassed during her stay, forcing the Norwegian police to intervene on several occasions.

Despite the pressure endured by these women, Sammi Deen points to “significant progress” in the attitude of her people after the last march.

“Until very recently, most of the thousands of affected families remained silent out of fear of reprisals, but people massively joined the last protest. Today, more and more people are raising their voices to denounce what is happening,” claims the activist.

 

Khair Bux Marri at his residence in Karachi in 2009. Until his death in 2014, he was one of the most influential and respected leaders of the Baloch people. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

Khair Bux Marri at his residence in Karachi in 2009. Until his death in 2014, he was one of the most influential and respected leaders of the Baloch people. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

 

Thirst for Leadership

Baloch society has historically been organised along tribal lines. Some of its most charismatic leaders, such as Khair Bux Marri, Attaullah Mengal or Akbar Khan Bugti, eventually paid with imprisonment, exile and even death for their opposition to what they saw as a state of occupation by Pakistan.

Muhammad Amir Rana is a security and political economy analyst as well as the President of the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies. In a telephone conversation with IPS from Islamabad, Rana points to a certain “need for leadership” as one of the keys behind the massive support for Baloch activists.

“The problem is that all those historical leaders are already dead, and those who remain in Balochistan are seen as people close to the establishment by a large part of Baloch society. They no longer represent their people,” explains the analyst.

He also highlights the presence of an “emerging” Baloch civil society structured around the Baloch Unity Committee (BYC), the Baloch Students Organization (BSO Azad ) or the VBMP.

“Mahrang Baloch is a young woman with an academic background who has managed to put the issue of the missing Baloch people in the spotlight, but who also brings together the feelings of her people and seems to be able to channel that into a political movement,” says the expert.

 

Karima Baloch used to hide her face for security reasons. The student leader went into exile in Canada, where she died in 2020 under circumstances not yet clarified (Photo: BSO Azad)

Karima Baloch used to hide her face for security reasons. The student leader went into exile in Canada, where she died in 2020 under circumstances not yet clarified (Photo: BSO Azad)

 

It’s an opinion shared by many, including Mir Mohamad Ali Talpur, a renowned Baloch journalist and intellectual.

“The mainstream parties often try to supplant the civil society but they, with their limited aims, are too shallow to take up the mantle. As for the tribal chiefs that remain, they are stooges of the government and their power stems from the governmental support and from the tribes,” Talpur tells IPS over the phone from Hyderabad, 1,300 kilometres southwest of Islamabad.

He also highlights the changes the last march led by women produced.

“Since the last march, all abductions have resulted in protests which include blockades of roads and other similar actions. Mahrang and Sammi have a charismatic aura and emulating them is considered honourable in both urban and tribal sections of society,” explains Talpur. He also stresses that both women give “continuity to Karima Baloch´s legacy.”

He refers to that Baloch student leader forced into exile in Canada, where she died in 2020 in circumstances that have not yet been clarified. The BBC, the British public broadcaster, even included her in its list of “the 100 most inspiring and influential women of 2016.”

As for the more pressing present, Talpur is blunt about the social impact of the women-led march:

“The most significant change is that people have realized that remaining silent about the injustices perpetrated against them only allows things to worsen.”

 
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