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In the line of fire

June 18, 2013

AT the young age of 18, Sharafata had already attained the attributes of a quintessential Pakhtun woman born and bred in rural Peshawar. Of course she knew of the threat that her job entailed, but in her decision to eschew security while administering the polio vaccine to children she was guided solely by her natural fearlessness and audacity.

‘No one can dare touch me’ is how Sharafata must have reacted to the words of caution from her family while going out on her mission in her traditional all-enveloping burqa on the fateful day of May 28 — the day she was gunned down.

Sharafata and her companion Sumbal, who belonged to the same community, had not reckoned to what depths their cowardly and soulless assailants could stoop when the latter opened fire without even challenging the two girls who were armed only with vaccines against a deadly ailment.

Sharafata died on the spot while Sumbal lived with her grievous wounds for some days more before expiring on June 8 at the trauma centre in Lady Reading Hospital Peshawar. Sharafata did not live to hear her wedding bells that were only weeks away while Sumbal left behind a large family of five sisters and several young brothers to mourn not only their beloved sibling but also their breadwinner.

Attacks on polio workers across the predominantly Pakhtun-inhabited areas in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have attracted attention across the world. Bill Gates is also said to have spoken to the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf chairman Imran Khan urging him to contribute to the cause of eradicating polio from the planet.

But that approach unfortunately does not appear to work. It would take much more than asking individuals, howsoever influential they might be, to intercede as the damage done to the polity appears to be immense.

Before Sharafata and Sumbal fell thus, six female polio workers were killed in cold blood on a side road of the Peshawar-Islamabad motorway near Swabi. Many other women were targeted and killed in Charsadda and Peshawar in hit-and-run incidents reported widely by the national and international media.

The dawn of the present millennium has seen many catastrophes in Pakhtun lands, the worst being the use of children as suicide bombers and the treating of women as legitimate targets in the internecine war bearing visible marks of religious frenzy.

The long-held popular belief that women and children were outside the ambit of hostilities raging among the Pakhtuns is now questionable in the much-celebrated, centuries-old Pakhtun code of ethics.

‘A Pakhtun must defend the honour of women at all costs and must protect them from vocal and physical harm’ so demands the tenet of namus in the code of life called Pakhtunwali or Pashtunwali and practised not only by Pakhtuns but also by those living alongside them in the Pakhtun areas. The day Sharafata was killed and when other polio workers were exterminated, not a leaf moved nor were the Pakhtuns as a self-respecting polity seen decrying the tragic turn of events.

On the contrary, as is the norm these days in a vastly desensitised society, it was quite heart-wrenching to hear people attributing sinister motives to the ongoing anti-polio campaign.

“Who knows, these girls might have been working for the CIA,” a heartless young man from the Khyber Agency remarked when his attention was drawn to the brutal incidents involving the killing of women in the Pakhtun communities.

It appeared that the highly educated young tribesman, who was himself on the run from the embattled Khyber Agency, was merely echoing the viewpoint of the society at large — a society that by not registering even a feeble protest has lent strength to the perpetrators of these unforgivable crimes.

The world appears to be waking up to injustices. Despotic regimes have been forced to bite the dust in the Middle East by people who were once considered to be in a slumber. The death of a fruit vendor in Tunisia triggered a revolution whereas plans to level a small park in Istanbul have stirred an uprising that has the all-too-familiar stamp of discontent fomented by whimsical decisions.

In KP and the adjoining tribal areas dozens of groups acting in the fashion of private armies have ripped the area apart, killing and maiming people without any compunction. People partly out of fear and partly out of callous disregard for human life have assumed an eerie silence.

The unknown, unarmed victims of drone strikes are lucky to the extent that so many people across the world are speaking for them these days. Some lobbies in the West opposed to the US on ideological grounds have even succeeded in holding protests against drones both in and outside Pakistan.

On the other hand, few people have raised their voice for the thousands of citizens of KP slain by the militants. Perhaps it may be unfashionable to do so.

Posthumously conferring the highest national medals for bravery on Sharafata and Sumbal and their colleagues would be a step in the right direction. By doing so, we can send a strong message to the killers of these valiant Pakhtun women.

The writer is a freelance contributor.