The IoS Christmas Appeal: 'I still don't know why I was singled out'

ActionAid, with <i>IoS</i> support, helps all refugees in north-west Pakistan. Raymond Whitaker, in Mingora, explains why women often suffer most
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The Independent Online

The war being fought against Islamist extremism in north-west Pakistan has had its most drastic impact upon women. For Zarmira it meant a forced marriage to a Taliban commander. For Sajida, a neighbour more than twice her age, it meant separation from her daughter and rejection by her husband.

The two women come from a remote part of the northern Swat valley, where the Pakistani Taliban first established a base some four years ago. They began ruling by fear, amputating the hands of alleged thieves and threatening to kill women who did not adopt the unfamiliar burqa. “One day, when I was wearing just the chador shawl, I was stopped by four men,” said Zarmira. “They said: ‘We keep telling you women to wear the burqa,’ ripped off my scarf and chopped half my hair off.” This incident might have led to what happened later.

By April this year the Taliban had seized control of the whole of Swat and the neighbouring district of Buner, and an alarmed Pakistani government, urged on by Britain and the US, launched an all-out military assault to drive the extremists back. Nine-tenths of the civilian population fled, including Sajida and her children, but Zarmira and her family were trapped. A group of Taliban fighters had come to her home and told her father that the local Taliban commander wanted her for a bride.

“I still don’t know why I was singled out,” said Zarmira. “Perhaps they saw my face when my hair was chopped. My father said the commander was too old and I was too young, but the fighters said that if he did not agree, I would be killed.” A mullah was summoned to the house, and the ceremony went ahead without further ado. “I was crying all the time, telling my parents I didn’t want to do it,” she said. “My mother was crying too. There was no happiness, no celebration.”

That was not the only unusual aspect of the wedding. The mullah did not ask the teenager whether she consented, nor is she aware whether her suitor was even present. Afterwards she was left with her family until the second part of the marriage ceremony, according to local custom – the formal “giving away” of the bride by her father to the groom – could be carried out. Luckily for Zarmira, the army offensive began soon afterwards, and the Taliban commander had other things on his mind. A month later, with the militants in disarray, the family escaped to Karachi, hundreds of miles away. They did not return until it was confirmed that the commander had been killed in the fighting.

Zarmira makes no bones about it. “I am very glad that he is dead,” she said. “After more than a year I have gone back to college, and I hope to become a primary teacher. My parents will choose someone suitable for me to marry, and I am happy with that.”

Reema Aftab, ActionAid’s deputy country director in Pakistan, said that for some women, the disruption caused by the conflict “actually gave them some space”. Strict purdah broke down as families fled, and women who had never been outside the home gained confidence from such experiences as queuing for rations in the refugee camps. The charity, whose work in Pakistan is being supported by The Independent on Sunday Christmas appeal, makes it a priority to improve the situation of women. It has established home-based centres where they can learn their legal rights as well as how to read and write. Others are being taught money-earning skills, such as sewing, shawl-making and embroidery, for which they are given the necessary equipment, including sewing machines, and materials. More than 11,000 women have already been helped.

The need for such support is emphasised by what happened to Sajida, who brought up her daughter, Faiza, 13, and six-year-old son Saifullah with little help from her husband, a migrant worker in Saudi Arabia. She and her children fled to the mountains with fellow villagers when the fighting began, but an air strike nearby caused the group to scatter in panic. Afterwards Faiza could not be found. “I searched the mountainside for an hour, but she had disappeared,” said Sajida. “I was very worried about how I would tell my husband. He is the angry type.”

Eventually Sajida was forced to carry on with her son to a refugee camp, where they spent two months. “I was asking everybody about Faiza, and crying all the time,” she said. Her last hope was that her daughter might have found her way back to their home village, but that was dashed when Sajida and Saifullah returned in August. It was not until a few weeks ago, when phone lines were restored, that they discovered what had happened to Faiza. She was in Karachi – and she was married.

“Faiza said that after failing to find me on the mountainside, another family had taken her with them,” her mother related. “They took her all the way to Karachi. When their teenage son said he wanted to marry her, she had no choice. The boy’s parents spoke to me, and promised they would bring her to Swat when it was safe, but I don’t know whether to believe them.”

Nor can Sajida afford to go to Karachi. From Saudi Arabia her husband, on hearing what had happened, ordered her to leave the family home. She and Saifullah are now living with her parents, still ruing the day they lost Faiza. “She says they treat her well, but they are all living in one room, and her education is over,” said Sajida. “She used to dream of being an air hostess. Now all I have is her picture.”

Some names have been changed

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Support for our Christmas appeal

The renowned explorer and writer, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, has backed The Independent on Sunday Christmas appeal in support of ActionAid's work in Pakistan.

"In the midst of some of the most awe-inspiring scenery in the world, people are suffering," Sir Ranulph said last week. "The fighting in north-west Pakistan has killed hundreds of innocent civilians, destroyed thousands of homes and left hundreds of thousands facing a bitter winter without money or food. Please support The Independent on Sunday Christmas appeal for ActionAid, which is working to help these victims of conflict."