Targeted by militants, Pakistan’s women push back

In Pakistan, women occupy a difficult place in society. They are the receptacles of society’s expectations and never allowed to be human beings, or individuals

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One of the most popular adages in Pakistan goes like this:

“Heaven lies at the feet of your mother”. It is based on a saying, or hadith, of the Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him, and is used to show how much respect Islamic culture holds for women. Another popular story recounts how a man asked the Prophet who was most deserving of his respect. The Prophet replied six times, “Your mother” and only on the seventh repitition of the question, replied, “your father”.

Which prompts the question, if women are so respected in Pakistani and Muslim culture, why are they being targeted for execution by militants with claims to both? Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was killed by the Pakistani Taliban in 2007. Prominent social worker Farida Afridi was murdered by extremists in July 2012. Malala Yousufzai was critically injured in October 2012 (and the Taliban have sworn to finish the job in the future).

Now, most recently, Perveen Rehman, the head of the Orangi Pilot Project, has been killed in March 2013.  An architect who worked to better the lives of people in one of South Asia’s biggest slums by improving their sanitation, water and housing, she was gunned down by unknown assailants, either on orders of Karachi’s powerful land mafia, or by militants attacking in retaliation for recent military operations against them. It’s possible she was slain because she headed an important NGO, and militants see NGOs as operational fronts for foreign interests and the spread of un-Islamic values.

And in between these well-known names lie the gravestones of countless other Pakistani women: Pushto singers and dancers, polio volunteers and health workers, teachers and NGO employees, anyone whom the militants deem disobedient to their social and political diktats.

In Pakistan, women occupy a difficult place in society. Never are they allowed to be human beings, or individuals. They are the receptacles of society’s expectations, the carriers of men’s honor, mothers or daughters of the nation - Fatima Jinnah, the sister of Pakistan’s founder, is considered the former; neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui, in jail for an alleged terrorist attack on American soldiers, has been branded the latter. 

It’s a heavy burden to bear, on top of all the roles they are expected to play in traditional society – wife, mother, daughter-in-law – and the educational or professional roles they wish to take on to achieve financial independence, or even the menial jobs they have to do in order to feed themselves and their children. All this while living as second-class citizens in their own country, deprived of many fundamental rights and unprotected against harassment, intimidation, domestic violence and murder.

And yet, as Steve Inskeep of NPR said on Twitter about Rehman’s murder, “When it comes to murder, Pakistan’s many armed groups give women equal rights.”

Pakistani anthropologist and American University professor Akbar S. Ahmed writes in his latest book The Thistle and the Drone that the ten-plus years of the War on Terror have completely fractured Pakistani tribal society, with its strict codes of honor, hospitality, and revenge. While seeming brutal to outsiders, life in the tribal areas of Pakistan had been regulated by this code, called Pakhtoonwali, and held in place by a firm nexus of control shared between tribal elders, religious clergy, and political agents.

But military incursions into the tribal areas and the infiltration of foreign Islamic militants into Pashtun tribal society, combined with American drone attacks, have devastated the traditional tribal structure. The result, argues Ahmed, is a complete distortion of customary tribal behavior, and the emergence of newer, previously unheard of activities: suicide attacks during Friday prayers, the bombing of children’s schools, and the murder of women.

All of Pakistani society, in fact, has been fractured by the events of 9/11 and the continuous pressures of inhabiting a unique position in South Asia’s geopolitical arena. But the empowerment of women has been recently identified as the way out of the morass that Pakistan finds itself inhabiting today. An advertisement in a foreign newspaper available in Pakistan proclaims loudly, “None of us can move forward if half of us are held back”. Pakistan’s government, civil society, judiciary, and education sectors are realizing this reality: efforts are being made on a greater scale than ever before to include women in the democratic process and decision-making roles in the corporate sector, to enact legislation that protects and upholds their rights, to encourage girls to enter school and stay there as long as they can.

Pakistan’s militants recognize the potential of women to move Pakistan out of the Dark Ages, as we’ve come to call them here, and are enacting their own kind of furious backlash on women’s progress. It doesn’t take much to intimidate a population, they’ve learned: a high-profile murder here, an attack on a vocal supporter of girls’ education there, and Pakistan’s women will go back behind the four walls of their homes and the folds of their veils, where they belong.

Not so fast, though. Earlier this month, a women’s awards ceremony honored Shazia Ramzan and Kainat Riaz, the two schoolgirls who were injured with Malala Yousufzai when the Taliban opened fire on her in their schoolbus. The two girls were given money with which to complete their education and start businesses. And despite Shazia’s injuries, which caused her to lose the two fingers of her right hand, and Kainat’s struggle to overcome the psychological trauma of her ordeal, both exhorted the audience to support girls’ education. The two young women both want to become doctors one day, Shazia a cardiologist and Kainat an army surgeon.

If anything, this is proof that the militants’ backlash against women’s empowerment is actually backfiring, instead of having the intended effect of dragging Pakistani women backwards. The more the militants push, the more Pakistani women, famous for their stubbornness, patience, and tenacity, will push back. It’s only a matter of time until the militants realize this is one battle they can never win.

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