x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Pakistan's women are at the forefront of social change

Pakistan boasts of thousands of young, bold and energetic Malalas challenging the radical and theocratic mindset.

Brave Pakistani women have been in the vanguard of social change in a country infested with religiously radical and extremist groups. The women have also emerged as the first line of defiance against extremism in a country with a poor record in protection of women's rights.

Over many years, they have refused to be silent spectators of social injustice and gender inequality, and have openly denounced the Taliban's radical agenda. Many determined women have sacrificed their lives for these causes and many more remain active despite facing grave threats to their lives.

In the latest campaign of violence against such women, terrorists gunned down the prominent social worker Parveen Rehman this month in Karachi, the southern port city where the Taliban are believed to have increased their presence over the past few years. Ms Rehman was a long-time director of the renowned Orangi Pilot Project, which works to uplift poor areas.

At the beginning of this year, extremists shot dead six female aid workers in the Swabi district of the north-western province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. The victims, who were teachers and health visitors, worked for a charity, Support With Working Solution, which runs a number of health and education projects including polio vaccinations. Their terror extinguished six beacons spreading light in an area obscured by extremism.

It is women in Pakistan who have become real agents of social change and challenged the status quo without caring about the costs of doing so. Whether it be the teenagers like Malala Yousafzai, the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, human rights activists like Asma Jahangir or the female vaccination workers; all these women showed unprecedented guts and nerve to defy an agenda that is radicalising, exploiting and terrorising society. They are in a clash with the strong, deeply entrenched and repressive forces of the status quo, who have nothing but zero tolerance for these agents of change. They are really fighting hard for the soul of a progressive and democratic Pakistan.

Unfortunately, women in Pakistani society are discriminated, exploited, oppressed, browbeaten, and chastised in the name of so-called social practices that are rooted in medieval times. Under the anti-women practices like wanni and budla-i-sulh, women are still traded like commodities, given in marriages against their will to settle family or tribal disputes.

These practices are widespread in the country's rural areas where the tribal and feudal system is still very strong. Last October, a tribal jirga in Dera Bugti district of Balochistan province declared 13 girls wanni to settle feuds between two conflicting clans.

It is worrying that the tribal chiefs and feudal lords, who frequently become members of parliament, strongly support this cruel practice. They believe the practice of handing over women to settle disputes is highly desirable for peace-keeping, arguing that it produces blood bonds which make for lasting peace. A few years ago, at least three women were first killed and then dumped in Balochistan as a result of a decision given by a tribal jirga. Israrullah Zehri, a senator from Balochistan and a tribal chief, defended the jirga's decision saying the Baloch tribesman had done nothing wrong as they only kept up with their centuries-old traditions. This feudal mindset reflects a high level of disregard for women's rights.

The struggle for gender reform and social change remains an uphill task in an underdeveloped nation. Pakistani women have been on the frontline in the war on extremism.

The most high-profile example of such female "soldiers" in recent years was the twice-elected Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, killed in a terrorist attack during an election rally in Rawalpindi in December 2007.

Ms Bhutto was a vocal critic of the growing presence and influence of the Taliban in Pakistan. She received death threats after she declared an open war on Islamist extremists. She had a narrow escape in twin suicide attacks that killed at least 200 people at her welcome rally. She never stopped denouncing extremism and finally fell prey to a terror attack.

In Pakistan, the Taliban has emerged as a deadly enemy to the development of social sectors including health and education.

The attacks on polio vaccination volunteers expose the Taliban's mindset, which is the product of obscurantism, radicalism and intolerance. Taliban has a sick mindset and it wants to make Pakistan a sick nation by halting the polio vaccination programme through terror.

Women, who are in the field to save children from polio in the terror-hit country, are playing with their lives. Four female health workers including Naseema Akhtar, Madiha, Fahmida and Kaneez Jan in Karachi, and 13-year-old Farzana in Peshawar were shot dead when they were administering polio vaccinations on December 18 last year. This exposes the brutality of attacks on women.

Taliban militants are fiercely against female education and have destroyed hundreds of girls' schools in north-western tribal areas. About 96 schools were attacked in Pakistan last year, according to Human Rights Watch. The schoolgirl Malala and two others were attacked by the Taliban last year in Swat.

The wounded Malala has since emerged as a voice of the oppressed and become an international icon. Her fight and victimisation at the hand of Taliban has inspired thousands of Pakistani schoolgirls who want to become the next Malala.

Today, the country has thousands of young, bold and energetic Malalas challenging the radical and theocratic mindset. This is the miraculous outcome of the struggle of some brave Pakistani women for social change and against the scourge of extremism.


Syed Fazl-e-Haider is a development analyst in Pakistan. He is the author of The Economic Development of Balochistan (www.syedfazle haider.com)