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Pakistan: Fundamentalists Assault on Women, Minorities and on Culture

by Nazish Brohi, 11 April 2009

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The News International

Not the better half

by Nazish Brohi

Chand Bibi’s flogging was part of an emerging pattern of targeting the disadvantaged and marginalised sections of society: the women, the representatives of art and culture and the minorities.

The Taliban’s ideological precursors were the MMA government in the NWFP, which is therefore directly responsible for the current crisis. The Swat case is not just an aberration.

In 2003, the MMA government banned male doctors and technicians from attending to female patients, and banned women from working in public call offices. They also opposed new laws that increased women’s political participation, stating Parliament was not the place for women. When Zubaida Begum, an employee of Aurat Foundation, was killed for wanting to contest elections, the MMA government said it was a "personal" matter, and the matter was dropped. Later, the same attitude was displayed by the government when parliamentarian Zille Huma was killed by a man who said he did so because he opposed women in politics.

The Hisba Bill was proposed to create a "morality police force" and check "indecent" behaviour, and "vice squads" began campaign against women’s public visibility. Women models’ faces were blackened with paint on hoardings, even female mannequins were banned. Mera Ghar, the only shelter for abused women in the NWFP, was closed by the MMA government for promoting "obscenity." (In Karachi, the Visual Arts Department of Karachi University was attacked and vandalised, also for "promoting obscenity.")

In 2003, while attention was paid to removing public representations of women, what was overlooked was the first sign of alarm in Swat: the assassination of Abdul Wahab, an Afghan writer who had written two books against Al Qaeda and its leadership. In 2004, the first women’s organisation was targeted by militants, when teacher employees of Khwendo Kor were attacked and shot at in Bannu, and a fatwa passed that women working in NGOs should be treated as "maal-e-ghanimat" and men should marry these women to bring them on the right path. Meanwhile, when a woman was raped in Mardan, the MMA law minister said that the government had been asked by the family to step aside and allow them personal revenge.

In the same year, as music and singing was banned in public places in the NWFP, the provincial government arranged bonfires of CDs and DVDs and shut down family-planning programmes. While the Jamaat-e-Islami proposed gender- segregated graveyards, the provincial assembly passed a resolution for exemption of women’s pictures from ID cards.

In 2005, in Multan a man stoned his wife to death for adultery – the first such incident in Pakistan. Two years later, three people were stoned to death for adultery in the same locality.

When the honour killing bill was debated in Parliament, the religious parties opposed it because the law circumvented the need for a wali (male guardian) for women. They vociferously protested with the same logic given for Chand Bibi’s flogging, her being without a "mehram."

From this point onwards, the brutality of attacks against women by militants becomes more pronounced. In 2006, two female teachers of a vocational training school run by the ADB were shot dead in Orakzai Agency. In 2007, a woman, along with two men, was stoned and then shot dead for alleged adultery in Alamguzar village in Khyber Agency. Later the same year, Islamic militants beheaded two women they accused of prostitution.

In March 2008, a couple were stoned to death when the Taliban declared them guilty of adultery. This incident happened near Ghalanai in Mohmand Agency. This couple had actually managed to run away to Nowshera, a "settled" area run by the provincial government, yet they were caught and brought back for the slaughter.

There are news reports that another woman was killed for "prostitution" in Kurza Bandai by the local Taliban this year because she refused to give up her teaching job in Mingora: she was a widow and needed to support her children.

And yet women are not seen as essential stakeholders in the "peace process."

The writer is an activist.