Pakistani women defy militancy

The challenges and contradictions facing Pakistani women were never so apparent as now. While striding ahead in a country that gave the world its first female, Muslim prime minister, they also face the threat of terrorism which claimed her as a victim. Bhutto was assassinated on Dec. 27, 2007 as she emerged from an election rally. Many attribute her murder to the extremists fighting the state in the name of religion.

The ongoing militancy raging in the tribal areas of the country’s north-west along the Afghan border, as well as the Taliban’s inroads in the settled Swat Valley just a hundred miles from the capital Islamabad, have led to over 100,000 girls being forced to discontinue their education. Over a hundred girls’ schools in Swat and over 150 in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) bordering Afghanistan have been destroyed, and another 62 closed down in Swat after threats by the Taliban.

A recent short documentary by ‘The New York Times,’ ‘Class Dismissed in Swat Valley,’ profiles Ziauddin Yousafzai, the owner and principal of a private school and his daughter, Malala,11. In the documentary, filmed in February, Malala wants to be a doctor but cannot continue and is overcome by emotion at the thought of not being able to pursue her dream. The following day, her father’s school, where she studies, is to be closed down because of the Taliban ‘deadline’ for the closure of girls’ schools in the Valley.

Since then, a ‘peace deal’ by the government with a cleric, whose son-in-law heads the Pakistani Taliban, has allowed schools in Swat to reopen. However, turnout has been low.

The physical destruction of school buildings by the Taliban, and, in some cases, by army shelling, has made it impossible for many schools to reopen.

The diary of a seventh-grade Swat schoolgirl, writing under the pen name ‘Gul Makai,’ also poignantly highlights the human side of the issue. On Jan. 3, Gul Makai wrote, only 11 out of 27 students attended class “because of the Taliban’s edict” banning female education. Three of her friends had already moved to Peshawar, Lahore and Rawalpindi with their families. Her own family later moved to Islamabad.

The NYT documentary pushed a Pakistan-born writer Shehla Anjum in Anchorage, Alaska, to contact Ziauddin. He said to her that he has since reopened his school, but does not know what the future holds. Malala, who still dares to hope, told Anjum: “I won’t let the Taliban stop me. I will get an education somehow. Maybe in Swat, maybe somewhere else.” Zubeida Mustafa, a senior journalist and women’s rights activist, says that school authorities in Mingora, Swat’s largest city, had confirmed to her that private schools had opened after the agreement, but attendance was thin, especially in the secondary classes.

The Taliban also banned women from going to the markets and, in January, they murdered the famed dancer Shabana in Mingora, two km from the present capital Saidu Sharif, Mingora’s twin city. After armed men dragged her away from her home in Banr Bazaar, Shabana reportedly begged them to shoot her rather than slit her throat. Her murderers pumped her body with bullets and left it strewn with bank notes, CDs of her dance performances and pictures from her photo album. — IPS