War against women
There is a war being fought inside Pakistan away from its restive borders with Afghanistan and India, explains Graham Usher in Islamabad
On 15 January an ultimatum passed in the Swat district of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP): from now on, said the so-called Pakistan Taliban, the education of girls in the district would end. The ban had little immediate effect: schools in Pakistan are currently on winter break. But, as an insurance, 400 private schools in Swat said they would not be reopening classes for girls when the vacation ended on 1 March. "We have decided to avoid the militants' wrath," said a school owner, who, like everyone else in Swat, refused to be identified.
Understandably. In the last year the so-called Pakistan Taliban have destroyed 172 girls' schools in Swat, a settled valley in the heart of the NWFP. They have commandeered 18 others, transforming them into armed redoubts. Roughly 80,000 girls and 8,000 women teachers have been denied their right to education and work: that's nearly a third of Swat's female students and a large chunk of its female teachers. Thousands more have left with their families to Peshawar, Islamabad and the Punjab.
"I sometimes think the fundamentalist brand of Islam starts and ends with girls", says Samar Minullah, a local anthropologist and filmmaker. For her "Talibanisation" poses a greater threat to Pakistan than the current war games with India over last year's attacks in Mumbai. "The Taliban will change the face of North West Pakistan," she predicts. "And women and girls will be the main victims."
The Taliban's war began in July, after the collapse of a peace agreement with the NWFP's provincial government. Under the leadership of a radical cleric Mullah Fazlullah, the Taliban moved to impose "what they perceive as an Islamic way of life, an Islamic emirate, on the same pattern as was established in Afghanistan in the 1990s. Swat is the first step: the goal is Pakistan as a whole," says Khadim Hussein, a researcher in Islamic militancy in Swat.
Since then, hundreds of local politicians, government officials, police officers and soldiers have since been killed. Bridges, roads, government offices, health centres, hotels and gas and electricity installations have been bombed. "Anything and everything connected with the government and the military is considered a fair target by the militants and is attacked," says Rahimullah Yusufzai, a local journalist and analyst.
But the cutting edge of the assault is on women, reflecting what Hussein calls the Taliban's "Wahabi jihadist" ideology. "If you obliterate women's education, you end critical thinking in families -- which is the greatest threat to the Taliban," he says. "The Taliban wants to end any interaction with modernity. They must impose isolation on a community geographically and ideologically. In Swat they think they've achieved this."
Aside from the attacks on schools, women doctors and nurses have been told to observe strict segregation in hospitals. Women have been warned not to shop in markets, and can leave home only under escort of a male family member. This is happening not only on Pakistan's impoverished frontier with Afghanistan, but in a district that was Pakistan's premier tourist spot and boasted one of the NWFP's highest rates of literacy. "Even the smallest village had a girls' school," recalls a woman from Swat.
Sometimes the misogyny takes the strangest of forms, says Minullah. "Women are seen to be the source of all sins. I heard a sermon in Swat recently where a preacher said the reason for the economic crisis in Pakistan was because women were stepping out of their homes!"
The oppression is not confined to threats and warnings. Earlier this month a woman dancer accused of "obscenity" was dragged through the streets before being shot in the head in a public square. Another woman, a widow and mother of three, was killed because she refused to give up her teaching job. A third tried to organise an event on children's rights in defiance of a Taliban ban. "She got 65 bullets in the chest," says a women's activist. A man from Swat said he saw "two women beggars" shot dead in street by two Taliban gunmen, still in their teens. "Women should not be out in public," said one.
Faced with such carnage, where is the government? In retreat, say locals. All nine of Swat's elected national and provincial representatives are on the Taliban's hit list and have left town, says Yusufzai. Nearly 800 police officers -- half the police's total strength in Swat -- have deserted or taken leave. And the army is either bunkered in barracks or resorts to heavy handed artillery or airpower that "kills more civilians than militants", says a local. In fact the cure is often as bad as the disease: as part of the fight against the Taliban the army has commandeered 18 schools, depriving 7,000 boys and girls of education.
"One side is bent upon stopping girls' education through the barrel of a gun and the other is trying to solve it in the same manner," says a local teacher.
What is the remedy? A lawyer from Swat says the local elected leadership must "end its self-imposed isolation and return. Then there can be dialogue. Then the problem can be solved." Hussein advocates a "targeted operation against the Taliban leadership by the military", backed up by jobs and development to "wean away the foot-soldiers." The army says it has a "new strategy" to secure education institutions in Swat. And the provincial government promises every child, boy and girl, will be able to return to school in safety on 1 March. Not a soul in Swat believes it.
Listen to the school owner. His family has been bombed and his school wrecked. He says there is only one way he will reopen his school on 1 March. "If the Taliban announces it has lifted the ban on girls' education, then we will go for it -- otherwise no. We have lost all trust in the government and army."