My article in weekly The News on Sunday published on June 10, 2012. I wrote it to meet their June 7 deadline, before the fact-finding team submitted its report. One of the members of that team was the activist Fouza Saeed who wrote about her experience in this article of June 8, A tipping point?: Real concerns in Kohistan.
Kohistan in context
The ‘religious’ militancy is adding to the social conservative values that weigh down women
By Beena Sarwar
Over the past few months, Kohistan has hit the headlines for reasons that symbolise much of what’s wrong in Pakistan: short-sighted policies that have given a boost to ‘religious’ extremists, poor law and order and prosecution systems that allow people to get away with murder, and conservative social values that reduce women to the status of chattel who can be killed for the sake of ‘honour’.
The three incidents that highlight these factors include the massacre of February 28, when about 20 men in military uniform ambushed vehicles travelling from Islamabad to Gilgit on the Karakorum Highway, pulled off the Shi’a passengers and shot dead sixteen men.
Then, on May 4, a 92-year-old former parliamentarian warned women working in non-governmental organisations (NGOs) against entering Kohistan district, threatening to forcibly marry them off to locals if they persisted. ‘Maulana’ Abdul Haleem, elected from Kohistan on a Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) ticket in 2002, opposes non-religious education for women and thinks that Islam forbids women to work outside their home. Officials dismissed him as an attention-seeking senile old man, but many women found his words threatening.
Last week, we heard about the alleged killing of four women and two men for “singing and dancing” with “na-mehrams” during wedding celebrations. The ‘sentence’ was reportedly ‘pronounced’ by a cleric at a ‘jirga’ (tribal council). After an outcry in the media, police arrested the cleric who denied the charges and said that no such decree had been issued.
These incidents highlight the process of ‘talibanisation’ (a term used to cover the mindset shared by the ‘taliban’ as well as the local self-proclaimed ‘jihadis’) that has been growing in Pakistan due to several factors.
One factor is the global politics played out on Pakistani soil — particularly Saudi versus Iran. Proxy wars in Pakistan, carried out through propaganda and weapons, have led to not just a widening rift between different sects of Islam and between Muslims and non-Muslims in the country, but to a tragic increase in violent deaths, innocents being killed just for being born into a certain religion or sect of Islam.
These proxy wars have been facilitated by another factor behind the ‘talibanisation’ of Pakistan: the policies imposed by military governments, particularly under Gen. Ziaul Haq, that set Pakistan on an ‘anti-India, pro-jihadi’ path. Decades of such conditioning and indoctrination at all levels have made it difficult to reverse these policies and chart a new pro-people, pro-peace course.
A third factor is the inability or unwillingness of the authorities to check crime at the local level. This emboldens criminals on the ground, committing petty criminal acts like blackening women’s faces on billboards, ransacking DVD shops and pressurising people to wear clothes deemed more ‘Islamic’, or engaged in larger crimes that bankroll the militants’ activities, like drug-trafficking, gun-running and kidnapping for ransom. Police know that even if they pursue and make arrests, a call from some ‘high-up’ will free the accused, or if the case makes it to court, they will be released for lack of evidence — Pakistan has no witness protection programme that would protect those who speak out.
When law enforcement agencies fail to deal with real and perceived threats, it encourages criminals, including the militant, extremist elements.
This alleged murder of the Kohistani women fits neatly into this picture. No one was surprised that “singing and dancing” could bring on a death threat to those filmed in the video — an incident dubbed as the “Kohistan video scandal” by Pakistan’s scandal-seeking media (also, by terming the witness Afzal Khan as an ‘accused’, the jirga decree as a ‘sentence’, and murders as ‘execution’ the media legitimises illegal acts). Because, after all, women have been killed for less.
But as is the case behind most cases of ‘honour killing’, there was more to it than that met the eye. As the District Police Officer (DPO) Kohistan Abdul Majeed Afridi said, the case appears to be based on tribal rivalry and an attempt to defame a family. It was apparently recorded three years ago. The fact that it was brought to the attention of the media now indicates some enmity.
The video, apparently taken with a cell phone, shows four women in colourful traditional chaddars squatting on a bare floor. They clearly don’t want to be filmed. They hide their faces and look away. You hear a male voice speak and apparently requesting them to sing and they start clapping hesitantly at first, then more strongly. Their humming grows into a song. A young man gets up to dance, arms outstretched in the graceful, birdlike dance of the tribal, mountain people.
The DPO thinks the video was edited in an attempt to implicate the women and men in it due to a dispute between two tribes.
But even if the women were in the room with these men, there is nothing remotely vulgar or “un-Islamic” about what they were doing. And even if there was, it would justify a “death sentence”?
On Thursday, we heard the good news that they are alive. But given the flimsy pretexts on which women are sacrificed all over the country, they could well have been dead too. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, there were at least 943 reported cases of women being killed for allegedly sullying their family ‘honour’, around the country in 2011. Many of these murders are committed because the woman is accused of ‘illicit relations’ with someone — the real motive being to target the man with whom there is a property or financial dispute.
The truth behind the “Kohistan video scandal” will emerge. This is a district that “needs extraordinary attention to usher the people to the modern civilization,” as parliamentarian Bushra Gohar says. “Basically they are very good people and not extremists but the radicalisation of the northern areas has affected the area badly. There’s a need to take a larger, more holistic view of human rights in such areas.”
Meanwhile, the harsh reality of millions of lives in Pakistan remains unchanged, with ‘religious’ militancy further adding to the conservative values that already weigh down and hold back women.
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