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Half a solution for half of Pakistan

Now that the Taliban has imposed Sharia in Swat, what will happen to the rights of the region’s women? And what will it mean for the rest of the nation?

india Updated: Feb 21, 2009 21:50 IST

In the last few months, Swat has largely fallen to militants who have beheaded opponents, burned scores of girls’ schools and banned many forms of entertainment. Gun battles between security forces and militants have killed hundreds, while up to a third of the valley’s 1.5 million people have fled. A few days ago, the government of the North West Frontier Province — recently renamed Pakhtunkhwa, or the Land of the Pakhtun — reached an accord with the leader of the Tehrik e Nifaz e Shariat e Mohammadi (TNSM).

Jailed until recently, Maulana Sufi Mohammad had led over 10,000 men into battle with the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. He was arrested in 2002 by the government of General Pervez Musharraf, and released last year on the vow that he would renounce violence as a means to establish his notion of an Islamic order. This accord was reached in Peshawar through a ‘jirga’ where the Chief Minister of the province and members of the TNSM where present to sign it.

Clear and present danger
The questions that have been raised by the signing of this accord are many. As a Pakistani woman, foremost in my mind are the following concerns: In a so-called democratic polity, how is it possible to engage in a completely undemocratic process engendered by a jirga (assembly of elders) that excludes half the population of any community?

The Awami National Party’s minister for social welfare, a woman, was not allowed to attend the proceedings of the jirga simply because she is a woman.

Given that we are supposedly still mourning the death of another woman who was considered, by some, to be the ‘Mother of Democracy’, how can we as a nation accept a process and ultimately a result that is prejudicial and poised to further exclude women from decision making processes that not only affect their lives but also the manner in which many of them are killed for supposed transgressions of the moral order?

Is it not clear that this accord is opening the door willingly to allow — indeed, invite — militant fundamentalism to become the dominant ideology of the state, which, when under the control of its ideologues, shall be imposed upon the nation? Is that possibility so elusive to us that we cannot see the forest for the trees?

I do understand, however, the need for the people of our country to want to believe in hope, and perhaps this accord signifies, in the hackneyed words of our loquacious television anchors: Umeed ki aik kiran (ray of hope).

Nevertheless, it is important to think in the longer term, to also have a reasonable understanding of the history of militancy in the region, and to consider the repercussions of this accord for the people of the area and eventually for the rest of the country. Will this accord bring about justice and opportunity for all? Will it amount to the legitimisation of a medieval mindset which has endorsed and committed savage acts against the populace it supposedly aims to bring into the fold of Sharia? And whose Sharia is to be imposed?

What about the Shia community that has been targeted and brutally slaughtered, for the virtue of not professing the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam? What about the class component of the struggle? What about the Gujjar community in Swat that has its own contradictions with the land-owning Khawaneen? What about the entire feudal structure that is oppressive and exploitative?

What about women? What about our rights under Sharia? Will women in Swat now be allowed to inherit their father’s wealth, as stipulated in Sharia? Will the jirga allow for such a discussion, something that has never happened in the Pakhtun belt?
What about the freedom for a woman to receive an education, to marry of her own accord, to divorce? Will these Shar’aiy rights be respected under the patriarchal and misogynist order of things to come, given the narrow fundamentalism of those who are supposedly leading us onto the ‘true path’?

Peace, yes, but not justice

I protest. I cannot accept this accord as a genuine search for peace and justice.

The argument about Sharia replacing the unjust and sluggish judicial system is simply facetious — where in our beloved country is justice dispensed fairly and quickly? Have the people of Swat suffered a particular burden? And if indeed it is a question of asserting a ‘just and speedy’ judicial system, will such a system be extended to the rights of women?

Will a woman who has been abused by her husband be given justice, or will she be told that she is her husband’s khaiti
(field) and he can do as he pleases? What happens when a woman is widowed? Will she be able to refuse the customary practice of being married to her deceased husband’s brother?

What about the inhuman practice of swara, where girls as young as two years are given away to men in their sixties in dispute resolution? And further still, what about the custom of tor, or blackened woman, who has to be killed for a perceived transgression of the moral order?

Will we be on the path of progress or are we now being led, with our eyes wide open, into the dark ages by men in black who see their mothers, sisters, wives, daughters as the enemy, to be crushed under the weight of obscurantism?

(Feryal Ali Gauhar is a writer, filmmaker, teacher, actor and activist living in Lahore)