Pakistan: Swatting Women’s Rights In Swat

By Zofeen T. Ebrahim, Womens Feature Service

“Barbaric!” was the spontaneous reaction of a revulsed 30-something Farahnaz Moazzam, an Islamic scholar, reacting to the April 3 video, put out by private television channels, which showed the public flogging of a woman by Taliban militants in Pakistan’s troubled Swat valley.

The grainy video taken with a mobile phone, which was first circulated on the Internet before being aired by TV channels, showed a burqa-clad woman being pinned to the ground by two men with a third whipping her mercilessly 34 times. At one point, her burqa, which had rolled up a bit, was pulled down by one of her captors. The woman screamed and begged for mercy as a crowd of men looked on silently.

The woman has now been identified as 17-year-old Chand Bibi, who was lashed for having an alleged illicit relationship with her father-in-law. Reeling from shock and outrage, the images provoked a wave of condemnation across Pakistan, with many remembering similar atrocities being committed by the Taliban in Afghanistan. In fact, recent news of an eloping couple being executed in Herat, Afghanistan, in front of watching villagers, only underlined the nature of this trend.

“We held an emergency meeting the night the video of the flogging was shown on television in Lahore and a protest rally was organised the following day. The rally drew between 2,000 to 3,000 people from all walks of life,” said Senator Iqbal Haider, former law minister, currently secretary general of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), which had organised the rally.

Many have questioned the timing of the video. “Where were these protesters when there were beheadings, slaughtering, floggings going on in the valley?” asked a local resident over the telephone from Swat, who has requested anonymity.

“My reaction to the video was one of horror and curiosity at the same time,” said Feryal Ali Gauhar, a noted filmmaker and a political economist. “Who are these people, who have shot the video? Why was it circulated? Why have other barbaric acts not received this kind of coverage?”

“This videotape was dramatic and the cries of the girl being whipped made the difference,” explained senior journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai. “Videos of the slaughtering/beheading in Swat weren’t available. So they didn’t have such an impact.”

Terming the episode as shocking, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani called for an immediate inquiry as did President Asif Ali Zardari, who ordered the arrest of the perpetrators. The newly re-instated Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad, terming it a “cruel violation of fundamental rights”, took suo motu notice and directed the Interior Secretary, the Chief Secretary and police chief of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) to prepare detailed reports every fortnight till the matter is resolved. The initial conclusion reached was that the tape was not genuine.

So far, no arrests have been made despite the Taliban spokesperson Muslim Khan acknowledging that the deed was done at their behest. Said Khan, “What was carried out was in accordance with Islam.” He found all the media hype unnecessary, adding, “The media is under the influence of the West and are even showing something that is extremely shameful and which should not be shown.”

But Haider will have none of that. “Despite what has happened and been happening, the government and the establishment are in a state of denial. They are following the policy of appeasement of the extremists,” he said.

Far from condemning the act, some government functionaries have justified the flogging or claimed that it was motivated. Reacting to the nation-wide condemnation at a press conference, Iftikhar Hussain, information minister of NWFP, claimed the video was a conspiracy to sabotage the peace accord between the provincial government-led Awami National Party (ANP) and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), in Swat.

Many now say the ANP, once considered a secular party, is a partner in the crime. “Also, it seems,” said Yusufzai, “those opposed to the peace deal with the militants in Swat were waiting for an opportunity to pounce on it and vindicate their stand.” He said the video has put pressure on the federal government and President Zardari not to sign the Nizam-i-Adl Regulation. “If he doesn’t sign it, the peace deal could collapse and this would put the ANP’s alliance with the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) at risk.”

Earlier, the militant cleric Sufi Mohammad of Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat (TNSM), who brokered the deal, warned of renewed violence if the president did not officially impose Islamic law in the region.

Residents of Swat, who expect a backlash, fear the ensuing violence. Said one activist from Swat, “We believe this incident happened despite the various stories to the contrary being circulated. But we have remained quiet because of fear of repercussions. There is no one from the government to protect us so we do not want to provoke the armed militants.”

President Zardari, who had been dragging his feet on the peace deal, signed it on April 13 after the National Assembly passed a resolution in favour of the draft. According to ‘Daily Times’, Muttahida Qaumi Movement was the only political party that had expressed its reservation over the resolution and also abstained from voting to allow it to be passed unanimously.

The move has left Washington and liberals like Haider very, very unhappy. But others reckon that if he hadn’t signed more violence would have erupted. The insurgency has already killed about 1,500 people over the last 18 months.

From the very outset, the peace deal had come under fire. “It is a non-starter and it is distressing to see the way the writ of the state no longer runs in that region,” said Zohra Yusuf, a rights activist and a member of the HRCP.

Many believe that in all conflict situations of this kind, it is women who are the worst affected. Dr Saba Gul Khattak, director of the Islamabad-based Sustainable Development Policy Institute, recently observed, “Very often, during such conflicts personal scores are settled at the micro level under the umbrella of the overall conflict/nationalist struggle.”

However, Gauhar looks at this sorry episode from yet another angle. “Amongst ordinary people who saw the video, an immediate question that was asked was the ‘nature of the girl’s crime’. Did it merit such treatment? The very fact that people are thinking within this paradigm of primitive justice is of grave concern – these are ordinary people, who do not associate themselves with fundamentalist militancy,” she said.

Apart from this case of flogging, the HRCP has been receiving reports of the Taliban asking for young women as brides for their workers, and victimising them and their families if they spurn the request.

Another member of the civil society, from Swat, requesting anonymity for fear of reprisal, narrated that four women were thrashed in public at Cheena Bazaar, a local market, where just a year ago women could be seen shopping regularly. “I am not sure if they were wearing ‘burqas’ but they must have been wearing the long ‘chador’ (large shawl covering body and head) as is our custom. One of them was an elderly woman and, according to Islamic Sharia, there is no compulsion on her to observe ‘purdah’. They were publicly humiliated for talking to shopkeepers and for not being accompanied by a male member of the family.”

Haider blames successive governments for supporting the growth of these militant factions by arming them. He also blamed former President Pervez Musharraf and the present PPP-led government for capitulating to these forces. “They say they want to restore peace in the valley, but at what cost?” asked Haider. “They want to surrender at the cost of my fundamental rights, my social and cultural values and my territory… This is peace at gun-point!”

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