Pakistan's war within
Karachi, Paksitan's southern port city and financial capital, witnessed an unnerving coincidence earlier this month: While reports of Taliban militants -- on the run from conflict zones in the north -- infiltrating Karachi started trickling in, the city saw a simultaneous rise in threats and cases of harassment against women. Women have reportedly been approached by men -- sometimes armed -- and asked to cover up or stay home. Others have been threatened with dire consequences for freely roaming the streets or dressing "inappropriately".
The problem, as this Dawn report by Huma Yusuf suggests, is the lack of clarity about the attacks and the perpetrators. The women are panicking. Some are covering up, apprehensive of an inevitable takeover by the Taliban. Most are unwilling to come out and report the abuses. And the cops are unsure if the attackers are really Taliban operatives hiding in the city.
The experience of one woman interviewed gives a sense of where this war with Taliban in Pakistan is headed:
[W]omen’s rights activist Attiya Dawood says that she was walking with her daughters in Hilal Park, a walled-off park in Defence, when some young men began throwing eggs at them and yelling at women to go home and stay away from the park. ‘I can’t confirm who those men were,’ says Dawood, ‘but my brain went straight to the reports that Taliban militants or their sympathisers are trying to scare women out of public spaces.’
Dawood is correct to admit that her thoughts went straight to the Taliban even though she cannot identify the men who threw eggs at her. The fact is, no clear proof is available to indicate who may be victimising Karachi’s women.
This one cuts both ways: If these are real Taliban operatives, Pakistan's pains have just begun. Karachi is their largest city and way down south, away from the battle-ravaged northwest provinces, where the forces are hacking down Taliban bases. If they have reached as far as Karachi and are threatening women unchallenged, Pakistan has a long-drawn conflict ahead.
On the other hand, if they are not the Taliban but locals who have been closet-obscurantists now emboldened by the militant outfit's increasing influence over Pakistan, the country is faced with a worse enemy -- the one among its own. It is not uncommon for local miscreants to take advantage of a bigger goon and take a stab at controlling the streets. They need to be crushed early.
But the women are too unnerved to fight.
To get to the bottom of this, the story reports, women's organizations are working to raise awareness among women, to tell them they are victims of criminal acts and need to stand up. As the writer points out, not much is to be gained if women don't muster up enough courage to talk:
[S]hama Askari, a member of Tehrik-e-Niswan, is organising a group to petition the Sindh governor to set up a helpline where women can report cases in which they are threatened on account of their behaviour or attire. While such an initiative would be welcome, it will not prove effective until Karachi’s women are willing to speak out against the forces that might be trying to oppress them.
It's hard not to sympathize with these women, who are mostly middle-to-upper class and most likely have thus far led a non-confrontational life. Unfortunately, Pakistan's current situation is untenable, unenviable, and calls for some immediate untied action. The Swat deal -- which we discussed earlier on BlogHer -- expectedly fell apart earlier this month. The deal, which allowed for Sharia law to be enforced in the northwest Swat Valley, came crumbling when the local leaders expressed unhappiness with the sluggish pace of implementation of Islamic law in the region, then broke the deal by moving in south of Swat into Lower Dir and Buner. The government abandoned the deal, and, following some serious pressure from the Americans, is now in a fight-to-finish battle with the Taliban. The military says over 750 militants have been killed so far. Hundreds and thousands of people have been displaced. Pakistani soldiers are dying.
The deal was suspect right from the start and found both takers and acerbic critics in Pakistan. In an impassioned piece in The News against against the Swat peace deal, Sehar Tariq, a young Pakistani student now pursuing a masters degree at Princeton University, argues that Pakistan was disintegrating, and demanded that her country be returned to her the way its founders envisaged it (The piece has quickly becoming a emotional fulcrum for blog discussions and on online forums):
How can I be expected to return to a country where women are beaten and flogged publicly, where my daughters will not be allowed to go to school, where my sisters will die of common diseases because male doctors cannot see them? How can I be expected to call that country home that denies me the rights given me by my Constitution and religion? I refuse to live in a country where women like me are forced to rot behind the four walls of their homes and not allowed to use their education to benefit the nation.
...I cannot forget that Pakistan was created to protect the lives, property, culture and future of the Muslims of the Subcontinent. It was not established to be a safe haven for terrorists. We fought so that we could protect the culture of the Muslims of the Subcontinent, not so that we could import the culture of Saudi Arabia. Our ancestors laid down their lives so that the Muslims of the Subcontinent – both men and women - could live in a land free of prejudice, not so that they could be subjected to violent discrimination of the basis of sect and gender.
[...]Talibanistan is an insult to my Pakistan. I want my country back.
Hopefully, the turnaround has begun. Pakistani forces are on an all-out offensive against the Taliban. Pledges for aid are pouring in from the U.S., Japan and the Middle East. At least for now, Pakistan seems to have put aside its differences with the U.S. India, Pakistan's long standing bogeyman, appears to have fallen off the radar, as forces need to be moved from its border to fight more effectively in the troubled west.
And in an interesting twist to the logic behind the now abandoned Swat deal, Pakistan's ambassador to the U.S., Husain Haqqani, told Jon Stewart on The Daily Show (May 13), that the Swat deal was President Asif Ali Zardari's way of letting his own people know how a deal with the Taliban is not negotiable and will ultimately fail. According to Haqqani, this was the best way to turn around the thinking of those in the Pakistani establishment who favored a deal over a war with the Taliban.
We may never know the truth behind this. At present, the battle against the militants is on in full swing. Meanwhile the battle against Talibanisation of the mind is also taking shape online.
Amankaar Tehrik, a movement against the influence of the Taliban, has been circulating on the Pakistani blogosphere a piece by author and women's activist Fouzia Saeed, "Dispelling the Myths about Taliban" (found on Pak Tea House via Jahane Rumi).
The fundamental challenge for Pakistan, however, remains its identity, a discussion we had earlier here on BlogHer. As they fight fundamentalism, Pakistanis will have to figure out how they want their country to look like when they emerge from this crisis. The struggle has just begun. Minority groups are feeling the heat: Hindus have fled, Christians and Sikhs have been attacked.
The youth of Pakistan will likely need to make this decision. After all, this is about their future.
In a similar argument, Huma Yusuf's article in the Dawn, titled "Talibanisation and identity crisis", traces the lack of a more united and committed stand against the Taliban to a fundamental identity problem:
What becomes apparent is that the Pakistani public is faced with a hydra-headed monster, and it is unable to agree on which is the greatest of all evils. Do we, the people, react to the lack of governance at the centre and the occupation of our territories by an ideological group? Do we, as a Muslim majority, protest the perversion of Islam at the hands of violent, suicide-bombing militants? Do we, as feminists, decry the violation of women’s rights? Or do we, as humanists, focus on the plight of hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people who for too long have been written off as collateral damage? Indeed, understanding the paralysis of civil society in the face of the Taliban onslaught lies at the heart of the identity crisis
that Pakistan has faced since its inception.[...]The fact is, in organising against the Taliban, Pakistan is going to be forced to tackle its longstanding identity crisis. The first step to overcoming militancy is knowing ourselves. So before we can take to the streets with a single, articulate demand, we’re going to have to answer the question that we’ve been avoiding for over 60 years: who are we?
Huma Imtiaz has been documenting the displaced people. She is deeply moved and says so on her blog, The World Has Stopped Spinning
Ghazala Khan at The Pakistani Spectator calls for help for displaced people from conflict zones
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