‘Justice’, Taliban-style

by Beena Sarwar
Violence against women has been on the rise in the Taliban-dominated areas of Pakistan. Recently the Taliban moral police killed two women in Peshawar, leaving notes on their mutilated bodies accusing them of immoral behaviour and warning others of similar repercussions if they didn’t reform. See Asma Jahangir’s statement at the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan blog:

I wrote about this issue in March, for a Shirkat Gah publication that has just been published, ‘2007 Events & Analysis’. Other essays in the publication are: ‘Lal Masjid Occupation and seige’ (Kamila Hyat), ‘The lawyers’ movement’ (Asad Jamal), ‘The students’ movement’ (Aasim Sajjad Akhtar), ‘Media’ (Muhammad Badar Alam) and ‘Violence against women politicians’ (Shahzada Irfan Ahmed). I don’t see it up on their website yet – www.shirkatgah.org. My essay below.

Being a woman and a teacher cost Khatoon Bibi her life. On Saturday, September 29, 2007 four masked men on two motorcycles shot her dead with AK-47 assault rifles as she waited at a bus stop to return home from school in Pakistan’s Mohmand Agency, part of the tribal belt adjacent to the North West Frontier Province. Militants in the area have launched ‘anti-vice campaigns’ along the lines of the fallen Taliban government in Afghanistan. They attack drug dens, besides video and music shops, internet cafes, hair dressing salons, and girl’s schools. They send letters warning against women venturing out to work (even teach) and demand that girls’ schools be shut down.

In the tribal area of Waziristan, bordering Afghanistan, most of the girls’ schools, including 180 community schools set up with the assistance of the Norwegian government, have been closed, according to a report in The Telegraph, London (‘Taliban campaign targets girls’ schools’, Feb 4, 2007). The report noted that in Afghanistan, at least 61 teachers were murdered in the past 18 months and 183 schools razed.

Intimidated by the violence and threats of violence, most teachers have stopped going to schools in the tribal areas. Others defy or ignore these warnings because they simply cannot afford to sit at home. Khatoon Bibi, reportedly the sole breadwinner of a poor family, made the daily trek from her home in a settled area — Utmanzai village, Charsadda district, NWFP — to teach in remote tribal villages.

Given the dearth of local teachers, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) government, an alliance of several religious parties, inducted a large number of non-local women to teach in the mountainous areas. But they also dismissed, suspended or transferred to sideline positions women from government offices where they were visible and could effect change, like additional advocate general of NWFP, Musarrat Hilali.

Talking to this writer, Ms Hilali related how chief minister Akram Durrani of the Jamiat-Ulema Islam (F) told her that her only disqualification was being a woman. “He said that his party had no great objection but the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) was not allowing it.” She initially contested the decision, but eventually withdrew her claim.

The few female civil judges in the NWFP, including the senior civil judge Kulsoom Azam Khan, are used to receiving what the legal community sarcastically refers to as ‘love letters’, warning them to leave their jobs. There is strict security at the Peshawar courts due to the ongoing threat of suicide bombers.

Such protection is no guarantee of safety but it can be a deterrent. With no such protection, working women like teachers, are particularly careful about dress and behaviour, mindful of tribal customs and militant threats. Khatoon Bibi herself wore a burqa for her job interview, and was in fact wearing it when she was shot, according to witnesses (Mushtaq Yusufzai, ‘Threat unveiled,’ The News on Sunday, Oct 14, 2007).

On the first working day after Khatoon Bibi’s murder, October 1, 2007, hundreds of non-local teachers braved militant threats and demonstrated in Ghalanai, the headquarters of Mohmand Agency. They protested Khatoon Bibi’s murder and demanded security in order to do their jobs. The administration’s lack of response led to the closure of over a hundred girls’ schools in Mohmand Agency.

The increase in terrorist activities in general overshadows the issue of violence against women which is on the rise. “Women are given in swara,” says Musrrat Hilali, referring to the illegal tradition of giving away a woman or a girl to another family in order to end a conflict. “There are stove burnings and women’s noses being cut off. Basically, the militancy is just strengthening male domination.”

Among the first casualties of ‘religious militancy’ tend to be women’s rights. Extremists in Pakistan have received a tremendous boost since 1979. As mujahideen or holy warriors they participated in the jihad, holy war against Communist Russia, with more than a little help from America and its front-line ally Pakistan who, along with other allies, provided them with money, weapons and military training against the occupying Soviets. Pakistan’s tribal areas were the launching pad for the mujahideen’s incursions across the porous Afghan border.

In Pakistan, weapons and drugs became easily available and contributed to growing lawlessness. Sectarian violence escalated sharply after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan as the chickens of the jihad came home to roost.

A decade later, following September 11, 2001, Pakistan was again a front-line state for America — this time against the Taliban who mutated from the mujahideen into a monster that threatens world peace and security. The tribal areas that nurtured them are now sanctuaries for their successors who are fighting the Pakistan army in the tribal belt and Western troops in Afghanistan. The weapons and drugs of the 1980s look like child’s play compared to the new ‘imports’.

Hitherto unheard of in Pakistan, these practices go against the traditional notions of honour here: suicide bombings, executing prisoners and mutilating the bodies, and ‘punishing’ women outside the family. Some families would kill female relatives who transgressed — a prominent case being the cold-blooded murder of Samia Sarwar, supervised by her mother, in her advocate Hina Jillani’s office in Lahore, in 1999. Now, the militants have taken such punishments upon themselves, in the guise of ‘justice’.

As Peshawar-based lawyer Kamran Arif notes, those who want to establish their writ over a particular area must first enforce their version of criminal law. This is what the militants running amok in Pakistan are doing, given impetus by Islamabad’s military aggression. They not only carry out these punishments but videotape and upload them onto the internet for the world to see.

On March 14, 2007, militants of the Lashkar-e-Islami stoned to death two men and a woman on charges of adultery, in Bara, Khyber Agency, an area popular for its smuggled goods and proximity to the NWFP capital Peshawar. Women carry bundles of cloth on buses and sell the material from house to house, often operating on credit. The woman who was killed, Taslima hailed from a settled area. According to her family who approached the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), was trying to settle accounts in a house in Bara when local militants raided it. They claimed to have found her in a ‘compromising position’ with two tribesmen, Allah Noor and Shehzad. The Lashkar men publicly stoned and then shot them. They made a video of the shooting and circulated it.

Less than three months later, on June 3, the ‘Sipah Islahi Committee’ publicly executed another woman and three men in Landi Kotal, also in Khyber Agency on similar charges. One of the men, Said Ras of Mardan told the jirga (tribal council) that he had got the woman, who was a relative, “into the business” to pay off his debt. The woman reportedly confessed to this and pleaded for mercy, which the jirga denied. All four were shot dead with Kalashnikovs in an open area near Speray Dam.

The vigilante-style executions of two women accused of “immoral activities” speaks of the further distortion of such ‘justice’. Their beheaded bodies were found in Bannu on September 7, 2007, a day after armed men kidnapped them as they got into a rickshaw. A note in Pashto near the bodies warned that any women “involved in immoral activities” would meet the same fate. This was the first time that women were kidnapped and killed in this manner, countering the Pashtun code of honour.

Militants are attempting to establish their writ beyond the tribal areas. In September, weeks before Khatoon Bibi was killed, the principal of a government girls’ school in Taxila, once a repository of Buddhist learning, near the capital Islamabad, reported that an unidentified man had threatened to bomb the school if the students and teachers did not wear burqas. In October, militants bombed a girls’ school in Kabal city, Swat, a settled area.

Instead of taking a stand against the militants or providing security to the schools, local officials advise teachers and students to wear burqas, advocating the cover-all white ‘shuttlecock’ rather than the ‘fashionable’ black burqa which can leave the face visible.
In Punjab, the agrarian heartland of Pakistan, the administration did not charge or punish any of the hundreds of armed vigilantes who attacked the participants of the Gujranwala marathon in 2005, hurling petrol bombs and destroying public property. Shortly afterwards, plainclothesmen beat up and tore the clothes of women’s rights activists in Lahore who were peacefully protesting against the Gujranwala incident.

In Islamabad, the administration looked the other way as the clerics of the Lal Masjid illegally occupied land and built a fully-functional seminary. When the authorities decided to demolish it as part of their drive against illegal buildings, seminary students in protest forcibly occupied a public building in January 2007. The government took no action until matters finally came to a head, months later. Then, the response was the use of disproportionate force including chemical weapons. The government claimed to have killed over a hundred militants but according to independent estimates, the number of casualties was far higher, and included women and children.

Pakistan’s long standing policy of appeasement on the one hand and disproportionate use of force on the other clearly needs a major overhaul.

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