Trapped in their seclusion

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

HAVE you noticed the invisibility of women in the IDP camps? Although they constitute a substantial number of the displaced, it is the men who speak on their behalf.

Not at all surprising. Remember for years the election commission reported areas in the NWFP where not a single female vote was cast because jirgas had banned women from voting.

Hence it was an instructive — and also humane — exercise when some women from Peshawar visited their compatriots in an IDP camp in the NWFP. Bushra Gohar, ANP`s MNA, circulated the report prepared by them. Describing it as “a joint effort” with the identities of the authors being kept a secret, Bushra said the report was being disseminated to “build sensitivity to the realities and complexities of the issues and challenges women are faced with”.

That got me interested and last week I visited a family that fled Swat and has taken refuge with a relative in Baldia on the outskirts of Karachi. I found myself unprepared for this encounter for sitting with the women and listening to them in person was an altogether different experience from what I had expected. It also confirmed the findings of the report circulated by Bushra.

Here was a family of 25 uprooted from the cool climes of Swat yearning to go home. True those I met had been spared the tragedy of seeing death snatch away a close relative. But they are devastated by the agony of not knowing the fate of the loved ones separated from them, such as the mother of 10 who worries incessantly about the fate of her four children — the youngest being four.

Then there is the trauma they have suffered — worse than that of the earthquake victims in 2005. No one talks about it and women are the worst affected. There was a 20-year-old girl who was introduced to me as the one who had lost her mind. Silence was her weapon. When I extended my hand to her inviting her to sit with me, she came saying in Pushto, “So you will slit my throat?” Had she been an eye witness to the massacre?

There was yet another woman who whispered to me about the embarrassment she suffered at the thought of being a burden on her host, a man of modest means with a family of his own. She found her circumstances offensive to her self-esteem especially because her family had to leave behind a bumper wheat crop waiting to be harvested.

These women have a mind of their own. Now thanks to Bushra`s efforts we have a piece of oral history that tells us many home truths which would otherwise have been buried in the sands of time.

They should help dispel the myths that surround the people of Swat and the Taliban. What does it mean when a woman from Mingawera (Mingora) in the Sawabai camp says (as recorded in the report), “Islam started as soon as we fled from Malakand. People outside Swat think we had Islam and Sharia. There is no Islam in Swat. The Taliban have finished it.”

But we are still being told that the people of Swat wanted Nizam-i-Adl because they are pious and orthodox. The fact is they wanted the Sharia since they believed it promised them speedy and impartial justice. It took the women, the supposedly weaker ones, to sum up courage to call a spade a spade.

As is the case all over Pakistan, Swat is also a stratified society where the large majority is oppressed and exploited by a small landowning class. The Taliban promised the men emancipation from their poverty and the injustices of the present system. They also reinforced the patriarchy that is strongly entrenched in their culture. Small wonder they held popular appeal for the men.

But why did the women respond to them — after all they were brutal and so anti-woman? The report circulated by Bushra explains, “These women have lived through many months of a terror which has kept them even more housebound…. And yet their ignorance has played a big part in the tragedy of Swat. An ignorance and naivety which made many of them the captive audience of Fazlullah.

“So why did they let this happen? Why could they not get together to stop it? We repeatedly asked them this…. This is when the admittance came. They were honest, honest about the power of Mullah Radio and his constituency of women listeners. There was peace in Swat. Shut in their homes many women listened to him…. `He use to talk about Islam, about praying five times a day, about going to the madressah and learning the Quran. We all thought he was a good man`.

“This captive, gullible audience, shut in their homes became the main source of Mullah Radio`s power and support. They encouraged their sons to join his madressah. They provided the Taliban with a ready following. They provided them their sons which they soon realised were fodder for suicide bombings and `jihad`. It was only when they realised and resisted this that the Taliban turned on their own people.”

We now know the Taliban overplayed their hand. Today one can sense the remorse, anger and a feeling of having been betrayed that plague the women. The family in Baldia, who knows nothing about the Internet report, spoke about their experience in the same vein, “Us mullah nay hum par jadoo kar diya tha” (That mullah cast a spell on us). They are now enraged. The women I met said, “Never again,” when I asked them if they trusted the Taliban. But they don`t trust the army either because of its failure to act in time. Conspiracy theories are rife.

Will things change? It is premature to ask. One can`t predict which way the war will go. But it is certain that no war for the hearts and minds of people can be fought by excluding women. Activists striving for social reforms have yet to decide their priorities. What is to take precedent the gender factor, class injustice, ethnic conflicts, religious affiliation or political allegiance? The case of the women of Swat clearly establishes that if women are neglected all else will suffer.