Beating Back the Taliban

My column for HardNews, written May 24, 2009

PERSONAL POLITICAL

Beena Sarwar

“Is the threat of Talibanisation real or has it been hyped up by the media?” asked an Australian journalist friend calling a week before the Pakistan army began its belated operation against the militants in Swat region. With no independent reporting from the area, there’s only the army’s word about the situation. If rag-tag Taliban barely 4,000 strong are being trounced it is hardly surprising – they face the world’s fifth largest standing army.

A quarter have reportedly been killed in the operation. Many are deserting, shaving off their beards and melting back into the local population. Not all are hard core militants. Some joined the Taliban for money, were forced, or driven to avenge the casualties caused by American drone attacks. However, some still cause fear according to reports coming from refugee camps that house an estimated 20 per cent of the over two million persons internally displaced (IDPs in development jargon) since the fighting began. The rest are living with friends, family or strangers, some of whom house up to 4,000 people on their lands.

For the first time since 1971, a ‘war narrative’ is being developed by the media, government, army and politicians (many of whom until recently justified the Taliban’s actions; during Kargil, they denied the Pakistan army’s involvement). Now there are images ‘war hero funerals’ of army ‘shaheeds’ (martyrs) – not all from Pakistan’s dominant religion (Muslim) or ethnic group (Punjabi).

Even before the army action, wild bearded turbaned hordes were unlikely to take over Pakistan. This is not Afghanistan where decades of war destroyed all the systems and institutions. Nor is it Iran, where a huge urban-rural divide helped the mullahs to take over. Even conservative Pakistanis are uncomfortable with the Taliban’s brand of Islam – public beheadings, corpse mutilations and floggings. There is wide adherence to Sufi values and anger at the Taliban’s attacks on sufi shrines.

Pakistan has a 5,50,000 strong standing army (struggling to re-orient itself against its former allies the jihadis, countering its historic conditioning against India), a bureaucracy geared to maintaining the status quo, and an elected Parliament. Regular interruptions to the political process have made them somewhat dysfunctional but the only cure is to continue the process, break the pattern according to which no elected government in Pakistan has completed its tenure (not counting the one formed after the 2002 elections that took place during military rule without the participation of the political leadership).

I started writing this while my father was hospitalised  in the Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation (SIUT), a clean and well-equipped facility that treats rich and poor free of charge in this bustling megapolis of over 16 million. I described to my Australian friend the street scene I saw. The three-storey sandstone building is surrounded by decrepit British era and modern apartment blocks. Some ancient neem trees raise leafy green heads, sanctuaries for noisy crows in this concrete jungle. In the evenings, families including women and children, and groups of young men, bring roadside eateries to life.

For all the efforts homogenise Pakistani society, it remains diverse. That afternoon, a couple walked past the pushcart fruit, juice vendors and parked motorcycles, the woman in a brown burqa, the man in conventional shalwar kameez. Two young girls in colourful shalwar kameez, dupattas draped casually over their shoulders, walked the opposite direction. Another woman went alone, a black chaddar over her blue shalwar kurta. Several men lounged on the footpath, some squatting on their haunches, smoking, chatting, drinking tea.

Elsewhere, air-conditioned malls are full of young girls and women, some with girlfriends or dates, others with families or alone. Their attire ranges from burqas and headscarves over shalwar kurtas, to short shirts and jeans, to  high-slit tunics over calf-length trousers (‘capris’). Many are window shoppers escaping oppressive heat compounded by power breakdowns. Not all can afford the designer labels on display, but exposure to different lifestyles has changed old aspirations (not necessarily in a positive way).

Meanwhile, whether or not the Taliban are beaten back, a greater threat emanates from state systems that encourage conservative thinking — discriminatory laws against religious minorities and women, the encouragement of violence against religious minorities and women, vigilante justice, and anti-India, pro-jehadi values

http://tinyurl.com/pp-taliban

Some articles re ‘Talibanisation’, veiling, flogging

Two of my articles on `talibanisation’ and violence against women published April 12, 2009 that I didn’t get round to sharing here, reminded by Nadeem Farooq Paracha’s spot on article ‘Slap him or Slap yourself’ (Dawn, May 17, 2009) – http://tinyurl.com/pxrfjz

1. `Ongoing struggle’, in Special Report, ‘The News on Sunday’ about how Talibanisation is splitting our South Asian identity and leading to the existing schizophrenia and changing dress codes…

Extract: The trend (to veil) is also visible at the lower socio-economic level. Some years ago, Sughra, who cleans homes for a living, began wearing a burqa when going to work, motivated by weekly religious meetings. She feels it is “better”, both because it is ordained by religion and because it helps her to avoid the male gaze. Her cousin Ameena, a cook, shrugs off the suggestion to wear a burqa. Although deeply religious– she says her prayers regularly and fasts during Ramzan — she does not see the need to alter how she dresses, which is perfectly modest by any standards. “If a man harasses me, I beat him with his own shoe,” she says.

Complete article at  http://tinyurl.com/dmg4om

2. Op-ed in Dawn for which they changed original title “`Wicked’ NGOs and that flogging thing” to the more mundane `Swat flogging & public outrage’. They also changed the word `bottom’ to `back’ which doesn’t at all mean the same thing. `Buttocks’ would have worked but I guess that’s the prevailing `sensibility’.

Extract: The first casualty of war may be the truth but the first casualty of any `religious militancy’ is women’s rights…. The Taliban’s treatment of women, including their ban on female education while in power in Afghanistan (please note, before the American drone attacks) takes Zia’s obsession with controlling women’s morality and public behaviour further…. One reason for the Pakistani state’s apparent paralysis is that the armed forces and large sections of the population think of this as America’s war, compared to the previous Afghan war with its religious trappings. In fact, that was less `our war’ than the current one, which threatens the very existence of the Pakistani state. http://tinyurl.com/ccelax

A slightly longer, revised version was published in ‘The Hindu’ on April 14 – Vigilantes, the state and that flogging thing’ – The first casualty of war may be truth but the first casualty of any ‘religious militancy’ is women’s rights – http://tinyurl.com/qjs8da

Some other articles published at that time that I liked:

The high cost of surrender, Irfan Husain, Dawn 11 Apr, 2009 http://tinyurl.com/dxfmv8

Are we in denial about terrorism? Shafqat Mahmood, The News, April 10, 2009 http://tinyurl.com/cveryg

A state adrift, by Cyril Almeida, Dawn, 10 Apr, 2009 http://tinyurl.com/d9eoy8

A catalyst for change? By Zubeida Mustafa, 08 Apr, 2009 – WHY did civil society in Pakistan vociferously protest the flogging of a 17-year old girl in a public square in Swat and not when many other atrocities were committed against women in recent times? http://tinyurl.com/czofco

Deconstructing `We, the Mothers of Lashkar-e-Tayyaba’

Ham Ma’en Lashkar-e-Taiba Ki (`We, the Mothers of Lashkar-e-Tayyaba’), a series of Lashkar-e-Tayyaba propaganda publications – very appropriate to post ahead of the whole commercial mother’s day hype.

“…the Lashkar-e-Taiba uses mothers’ grief to create an emotionally charged arena that, it hopes, will both justify its mission and help increase volunteers for its mission” writes Farhat Haq in her analysis, published in Economic & Political Weekly, India – See http://snurl.com/hlil7 for the link

C.M. Naim in Outlook weekly, India, gives a detailed commentary on the three volumes have(they all “have the same garish cover, showing a large pink rose, blood dripping from it, superimposed on a landscape of mountains and pine trees”), published between November 1998 and October 2003. See – http://snurl.com/hliu5

Women to Reclaim Public Spaces

    A Programme of Defiance & Resistance.

Karachi Press Club, On 8th May, 2009, 5:30 – 7:30pm

Dear  friend of humanity,

We invite you to a programme highlighting the implications of Talibanisation for women, artists, and minorities in particular, and to our country in general. The Talibans have created terror through slaughtering of people, bomb blasts, kidnappings, and destruction of properties which has led to severe restrictions on women, and displacements of thousands of people from their homes. It seems their militancy has encouraged some men and women in some urban centers of Pakistan to admonish and threaten women on their mode of dress and their presence in public places. This is a deliberate strategy to purge public spaces of women’s presence.

WAF believe Talibanisation is a mind set which cuts across all ethnic lines and must be resisted by all, and in no uncertain terms. This mind-set abuses Islam by using it to control others. We believe religion is a private matter and all citizens of Pakistan are equal citizens We believe peace and justice must be the guiding light for Pakistan to become peaceful and just society. To achieve our goal we must discuss matters together and resolve to act collectively for greater public good, for this is what democracy is about.

We invite you to a programme of defiance and resistance.

  1. Welcome and introduction to WAF and theme of the programme.
  2. Habib Jalib’s poem written for WAF – We are not without friends and supporters in this land
  3. Art, music, dance, and drama, as statements of social freedom (Coordinator Sheema Kirmani)
  4. Youth speaks of the future she wants
  5. Speaker from minority
  6. Voices of the displaced (we are in touch with the families that have been displaced because of the Talibinsation related disturbances in their area, and hope to have some of them share their experiences)
  7. Representatives of political parties to be respondents to the concerns voiced in the programme.
  8. FAiz Ahmed Faiz’s poem : Hum dekhain gai.

9,    Candle light vigil

Following are the  key positions and we invite you to endorse them

  1. One constitution and one set of laws for all of Pakistan
  2. The writ of the government must prevail on the basis of moral authority premised on protection, health, education, livelihood and security of all persons equally
  3. Urgent de-weaponisation of society
  4. No special accords that compromise the rights of any group of citizens of Pakistan.

Please do attend and bring all your friends – women and men – to show solidarity with our cause which is also your cause.

Thanking you

Women’s Action Forum, Karachi.

Please bring a candle with you.

‘Talibanisation’: Backwards, forward, twisted around

A journalist’s notebook

By Beena Sarwar

In November 1999, like many others, I thought that the Taliban were the ‘last gasp of a dying order’. They were isolated in Afghanistan. The world largely turned a blind eye to their oppressive system imposed in the name of religion — public floggings, limb amputations and executions – for alleged moral transgressions that the Taliban saw as crimes, like adultery. Such punishments were not entirely an aberration in the last decade of the 20th century: USA’s most allied ally, oil-rich Saudi Arabia, routinely meted out similar punishments (and continues to do so). The Taliban in Afghanistan controlled an area across which America wanted to build an oil pipeline. Until they refused to allow this, their ‘barbarism’ received little notice in the West, particularly America.

The Taliban’s attitude towards women was an extreme version of attitudes generally prevalent in the context of this region. Women across South Asia are verbally and physically abused every minute of the day, every day of the year. ‘Honour killings’ in one form or other are common all over the Middle East as well as South Asia, in addition to the ‘dowry deaths’ and female foeticide prevalent in India. At least 1,210 women were killed in Pakistan during 2008, including at least 612 in so-called ‘honour killings’ and at least 185 over domestic issues, according to the recent annual report of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).

“The malaise is more widespread than we care to acknowledge,” wrote Jawed Naqvi in his column My fanatic versus your fanatic (Dawn, reproduced in www.hardnewsmedia.com), after the ‘Swat flogging video’ came to public notice. Highlighting gender violence in various societies including India, he comments, “What goes for religious fanaticism elsewhere can easily mutate into caste bigotry in a country like India. Although caste-based zealotry goes largely unnoticed because of its prevalence in under-televised rural areas, it works with the brutality associated elsewhere with honour killings and violence against women generally.”

In Pakistan, as well as in India and other societies where there is gender violence on the pretext of ‘honour’, the perpetrators tend to be family members. People often overlook or condone such violence as an internal, domestic matter. The culprits are rarely punished, particularly if they have acted against a daughter who eloped against their wishes with someone and that too from a different or ‘lesser’ community.

The difference is that the Taliban in Pakistan, in their role of extra-judicial vigilantes, punish women they are not related to, assuming the role of the State. Their Hindu counterparts may aspire to similar levels of vigilantism, judging by the Rightwing threats and attacks on women who transgress conservative norms in India – “Indian Taliban” as one Indian minister termed Hindu vigilantes who beat up women in a pub in Mangalore.

The comparison is not too far-fetched. Five years ago, I remember the US-based Indian filmmaker, Lalit Vachani, saying that many leaders of the Hindu Right “want a mirror image of Islam” – they want to manufacture, “a religion where a (spiritual) leader will give fatwas that the faithful will follow blindly.” He was speaking at a discussion after the screening of his documentary about the RSS, The Men in the Tree (2002) in Delhi.

Writing about the event that I happened to have attended, his words reminded me of an Australian PhD candidate working on a comparison of Hindu and Muslim Rightwing organisations some years ago, mainly in Mumbai and Lahore. She found that the Hindu organisation actually studied the tactics of the Islamic organisation, including pamphlets, literature, and video recordings of their rallies. (Having received various threats from their representatives in Australia when she returned, she preferred to remain anonymous).

In the same article, I quoted TV journalist Rajdeep Sardesai, who, during a live talk show on Geo TV during the Saarc summit in Islamabad in January 2004, had told the Jamaat-e-Islami chief Qazi Hussain Ahmed during a heated debate on Kashmir and religious extremism, “Qazi sahib, mujhe lagta hai ke aap aur Bal Thackeray ek hi sikkey ki do sides hain” (it seems to me that you and Bal Thackeray are just two sides of the same coin). Qazi had no answer. (The commonality of ‘fundamentalisms, October 10, 2004). More from that article:

“Sardesai’s brief remark pinpoints a fundamental and universal truth: the commonality of ‘fundamentalisms’, no matter how much at odds they appear to be. Unfortunately, they tend not to stick to the actual ‘fundamentals’ that are common to all religions – truth, justice, and compassion. As a result, another commonality is how their respective ideologies contribute towards a culture that condones and engages in violence – a point underscored decisively in Vachani’s film…

“In general though, there is little acceptance in India for such homogenisation, that many oppose, because it leads to violence that, in turn, will isolate the country. Vachani’s The Men in the Tree, in fact, makes the case that this homogenisation also prepares the ground for incidents like the Babri Masjid demolition, and beyond, to the horrors of Gujarat (2002). This brings up another commonality between extremist groups: their attempts to construct and strengthen their own identity by demonising ‘the other’ even if this means distorting history.”

In Pakistan, the growth of the Religious Right and subsequently the Taliban’s revival has much to do with the military’s continuous meddling in politics. Impatient with bungling and corrupt politics, sections of the population welcome or at least wearily accept military takeovers instead of pushing for the political process to continue.

When the citizenry is allowed to have a voice, it blunts the edges of extremisms, as we have seen in America and India. Elected leaders can sometimes be disastrous, but being in the political mainstream forces them to compromise, dialogue, negotiate, and step down from hardline positions – except when they sound the drums of war, a situation that allows for the revival of extreme positions based in manufactured notions of nationalism. Even so, when the political process is allowed to continue, every few years the people have the power to vote out an elected representative who has exploited nationalist or religious sentiments. A military man who takes over is accountable to no one. He cannot be dislodged by elections and stays on until he is forced out – in Pakistan, after an average of ten years. The presence of a military strong man at the helm of affairs keeps the lid on simmering discontents, allowing extremism to grow.

If the law and order situation is simultaneously allowed to grow out of control, criminalisation feeds into this extremism. Citizens feel emasculated and powerless; aggression and violence is one way of self-assertion. In Pakistan, since September 2001, the focus on the ‘law on terror’ at the expense of the police force and the criminal justice system, has allowed ‘religious militancy’ and extremism, already strengthened in the name of ‘jihad’ since the Afghan war against the Soviets, to dig deeper into society. These trends were reinforced and institutionalised by discriminatory laws enacted in the name of religion by the previous military ruler, Gen Zia-ul-Haq, propped up by America for his role in that war.

“This has led not just to greater discrimination against religious minorities, it has caused sectarian confrontation within the Muslim population, conflict between the orthodoxy and liberals over observance of social mores, and a running polarisation between the political Right and Left. Today, we are faced with two stark choices: modernisation and development, or regression into tribalism,” this reporter wrote in a comment on November 1999 (The Democracy Debate). Here’s more from that article:

“The country Gen. Pervez Musharraf has taken upon himself to lead, faces a conflict between these two trends that is intensified by increasing exposure to the outside world, access to the satellite dish and the internet, and education, particularly of girls and women even in remote villages and rural areas. On the other hand is ‘Talibanisation’ – fed by thousands of religious seminaries across the country, functioning with government sanction and even money, besides covert funds from other Islamic countries. The last gasp of a dying order?

“… ‘Talibanisation’ is still a serious threat, but it needs to be addressed beyond the surface – deprivation and the denial of basics like health, education and employment opportunities are among the factors behind the increasing number of boys being sent into madrasas where they are at least guaranteed food, shelter, education and even employment later as fighters. “The sectarian nature of most of these madrasas has contributed to the increasing sectarian violence in the country. The only thing that they agree upon is that the others are infidels, along with Ahmedis and pro-democracy, pro-human rights workers; many consider it legitimate to wipe out these ‘ideological enemies of the State’. “…Lack of participatory decision-making, the lack of freedom of information and expression, combined with the State’s own tendency to use violent methods to crush dissent, has contributed to a culture of fear and aggression.

“It is a combination of all these factors that endangers democracy in Pakistan. Short-sighted policies implemented for political expediency will lead to the strengthening of a Taliban-like order, with long-term negative impacts not just for Pakistan but for the entire region and beyond. For Pakistan, it will spell economic disaster and isolate it as a pariah in the world community. A nuclear pariah, which the world cannot afford to ignore. “This is why the world must link demands for guarantees of democracy in Pakistan with economic cooperation, and this is why the people of Pakistan must demand a return to the democratic process.”

Last year, Pakistan again took a step towards the democratic process. But the forces that now hold the country hostage had gained in strength over the previous three decades of military rule (Gen Zia), followed by a decade of musical chairs in which four elected governments were dismissed, followed by yet another decade under military rule (Gen Musharraf). During this time, these forces have consolidated their hold on areas of Pakistan and extracted a heavy price for political short-sightedness and insistence on ‘strategic depth’: the life of Benazir Bhutto. Had it not been for her insistence on electoral politics, Musharraf was unlikely to have shed his uniform and eventually stepped aside – the first military ruler of Pakistan to ‘voluntarily’ relinquish his position.

Still, the results of the February 2008 elections gave room for optimism as, despite threats of violence, the electorate categorically voted against those playing the religious card and those propped up by the military. The events of the past year are eroding that optimism, now overshadowed by the all-too familiar impatience and frustration with the political process. But the last thing we now need is another military takeover or a change of government. Whoever is at the helm of affairs will face the same challenges as the present regime. The fanaticism in the name of religion, developed and cultivated for decades by the powers that be, will not disappear overnight with the restoration of democratic politics.

Whatever its weaknesses and faults, the present government is the first in Pakistan that is really committed to combating this menace, recognising that it will consume us if we do not end it. For the first time, the army chief has spoken out about the Swat deal, terming it an “operational pause”. The Taliban’s continuous reneging from agreements made with the government may yet turn the tide against them and enable the military to move decisively against them, which it has so far been unable, or unwilling, to do.

Meanwhile, for the bulk of the population, the primary concerns remain how to feed, clothe and house themselves and their families, educate their children, get clean drinking water and adequate medical help. This is unlikely to change for the better anytime soon, no matter which way the political winds blow. But a sustained political process, at least, offers a chance for positive change – eventually. The alternative is too grim to contemplate.

Some thoughts on ‘Swat flogging video’

Girl being flogged: Still from the cell phone video circulated on the Internet and broadcast (repeatedly) on the private channels

Girl being flogged: Still from the cell phone video circulated on the Internet and broadcast (repeatedly) on the private channels

The ‘Swat flogging video’ has made headlines all over. Zubeida Mustafa in her excellent article in Dawn today, ‘A catalyst for change? analyses the reasons why

This para jumped out at me: “The Swat flogging video has brought people face to face with the reality of the emergence of extremism in the name of Islam. It has brought to the surface the paradoxes that had until now been swept under the carpet for expediency’s sake. The video has forced difficult choices on the people compelling them to at least think about issues that affect them very personally.”

Zia’s children, by Ayesha Siddiqa in The News, April 05, 2009 highlights the issue of ‘Islamic law’ or ‘Sharia’. She references the recent book by Tahir Wasti ‘Application of Islamic Criminal Law in Pakistan: Sharia in Practice’. Wasti, as she points out, has experience of both Islamic law and British common law. “This is the first detailed research enlisting the ramifications of the application of sharia law in Pakistan. tracing the historical roots of this phenomenon”.

For those who haven’t followed the issue or seen the video (warning, it’s graphic) check out Declan Walsh’s initial report on the issue in The Guardian, April 2, 2009 (two days before TV channels in Pakistan picked it up):

http://tinyurl.com/ck9wf9

Re: my own take – I’ve been swamped with the final editing of another documentary I’m making, but wrote something on the issue the other day that I will share after publication.

Focus on women – Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, a docu on Swat and more

Still from my film 'Mukhtiar Mai: The struggle for justice'

Still from my film 'Mukhtiar Mai: The struggle for justice'

A collection of articles published around March 8, including mine for IPS and The News, plus articles by Kalpana Sharma, Cassandra Balchin, Zofeen Ebrahim, Ayesha Khan (study on Lady Health Workers in Pakistan), link to a documentary on a Swat schoolgirl and more. Another post pending on issues around the attack on Rahman Baba’s shrine near Peshawar, will compile and post soon.

‘A new political context for Juliet’ – my article for The News on Sunday, about women speaking out all over the country, attempting to exercise their rights to personal autonomy – in a post-colonial age that harks back to medieval times when women were considered family property

Women Defy Militancy, Patriarchy – story for IPS outlining the twin threats of militancy and patriarchy that women face in Pakistan

http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=46024

In both articles, I refer to a documentary ‘Class Dismissed in Swat Valley’ (NYT) that focuses on Malala, an 11-year-old Pakistani girl on the last day before the Taliban close down her school. A must see – very moving and informative – profiling the great courage of ordinary people under adversity

http://tinyurl.com/avq4c9

I learnt of this film through an article that Shabbir Imam in Peshawar forwarded from the Anchorage Daily News by Shehla Anjum, a Pakistan-born writer based in Alaska, ‘Taliban wages war against girls’ education in Pakistan’. The writer followed up the story in the documentary by contacting Malala and her father.

http://tinyurl.com/dmxtld

The IPS website – http://www.ipsnews.net – contains a link to the other articles around Women’s Day -

http://www.ipsnews.net/new_focus/women/index.asp

This link includes other articles worth looking up, from Palestine and Afghanistan, and ZOFEEN EBRAHIM’S article about child marriage in Pakistan

http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=46022

KALPANA SHARMA in her column `The Other Half’ in The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, March 8, 2008, writes about the attacks women in India are facing – a chilling account of what looks like an Indian version of the Vice & Virtue dept of the Taliban that we are facing here in Pakistan…

http://tinyurl.com/bql9vg

CASSANDRA BALCHIN – a three-part series on the challenges faced by Muslim women around the globe and the debates within the Muslim world to deal with these challenges, the demand for equality within the family, and more, in Open Democracy – http://www.opendemocracy.net – I’ve shortened the three URLs for easy reference here:
Home truths in the Muslim family – The global pressure to reform Muslim family law is mounting

http://tinyurl.com/bxhf8v

Musawah: there cannot be justice without equality – Muslim scholars and activists from 48 countries launch a global initiative for justice with equality between men and women

http://tinyurl.com/akg2q8

Musawah: solidarity in diversity – a global initiative to reform Muslim Family Law finds solidarity in diversity and a growing convergence around human rights values.

http://tinyurl.com/bbvvhd

AYESHA KHAN’s recent study on LHWs and Women’s Empowerment in Pakistan can be accessed through the Collective for Social Science Research website
The study is at this link: http://tinyurl.com/cssr-lhv

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