Tribal intimacies

June 23, 2019


The writer is author of Faith and Feminism in Pakistan.
The writer is author of Faith and Feminism in Pakistan.

CONTEMPLATION and discretion used to be considered the virtues of respected scho­lars and official spokespersons. The lure of fame on social media has birthed a new tribe of celebrity intellectuals who no longer debate but battle with a gluttony of words on Twitter. The government and other official Twitter ac­cou­nts are often not policy-driven, and ap­­p­e­ar more in the business of discrediting critics.

This has eclipsed sensible discourse, especially, on the most curative moment in Pakistan’s postcolonial history since 1971 — the merger of Fata and KP. While our state has the uncanny ability to alienate those who have shared with us the intimacy of history, to be fair, the jingoism is deafening on all sides.

Our patriots ‘volunteer’ austerity as if it’s charity for the underdeveloped provinces. Conspiracy theorists make comparisons between a separation (Bangladesh) and a merger (Fata). In the erudite centre of Punjab bleed the hearts of scholar-activists enamoured of the courageous leaders of Waziristan but who scoff at any mundane ‘centrist’ efforts to maximise practical benefits for tribal communities.

Professor of ethnicity Lisa Lowe recalls colonial encounters as ‘intimacies’ but we can say that these intimacies continue in postcolonial times. The pre-conditions in the newly merged areas are hierarchical, militarised, and under- and unevenly developed. Basic human indices reveal the lowest quality of living standards in Pakistan. Gender gaps confirm the precariousness of life and livelihood.

The only hope is elected representatives.

Not only are 85 per cent of women in the merged areas uneducated, under 8pc of adult women are literate; the net attendance ratio for primary school girls is 26pc; the maternal mortality rate is 395, less than half the births are delivered by skilled attendants and underage marriage, fertility rates and domestic violence are the highest in the country.

Development and service delivery are lopsided. Lady Health Workers are few. On average, 70pc of enrolled children attend government schools rather than private ones, although the reverse is true for South Waziristan. The prime minister won’t be pleased but nearly 90pc of social protection in the merged areas is covered by the Benazir Income Support Programme albeit unevenly distributed.

Women’s overall labour force participation is in single digits; other than transport and storage, over 70pc of women’s employment in Bajaur and South Waziristan is in construction. Non-traditional occupation is likely due to “distress sale of labour” rather than the result of empowerment. In Khyber, where literacy/ education rates are the highest, women work in the service sector.

The first surveys after the 25th Amend­ment challenge notions about a homogenous heart of darkness that hosts permanent anti-imperialist warriors, oppressed veiled wo­­m­en, and elders who jealously guard pashtunwali. Most respondents in the mer­ged areas do not cite ‘culture’ or ‘the state’ as barriers to health, education or employment. They complain of failure of delivery, its poor quality and an over-securitised regime. Sounds intimately familiar.

Data can carry loud silences — about property, distribution of resources, religious practices, decision-making, and minorities’ status. These gaps must be filled but not through the predatory way that research and development is conducted in Pakistan.

Neoliberal academia and humanitarian agencies make lucrative careers under the guise of benefiting the ‘natives’. All through the ‘war on terror’, tribal communities were pathologised as victims of imperialism or villains of terrorism. None of this helped KP make a merger plan. Between colonial archives and postcolonial exploitation, the only hope is elected representatives — jailing them is stupidity.

Meeting these chal­lenges does not require hero­­ism — just an urgent, pra­gmatic people-led, financially sound strategy and its implementation. It used to be part of the task of colonial administrators to render Africans as enslaveable property, the Chinese as supplementary labour, Indians as illiterate wasters, Pakhtuns as intractable warriors, and oriental women as odalisques.

Demonising nationalists as traitors was a colonial tactic that led to identity politics and physical separation. Merging requires the opposite — not taming, erasing or turning the indigenous into the outlier but a respectful melding. Settler-colonial atti­tudes towards labour, women or political leaders, or attempts to ‘askari-seize’ or expropriate resources, or displacements, or using divide-and-rule tactics spell disaster.

Narratives can be controlled but not tipping points. Discontent cannot be crushed, just channelled. There may be four million Twitter users to chastise in Pakistan but that’s still less than the population of these areas. Isn’t it worth quitting the virtual game called ‘peace for change’ and ensuring that this real-life event is allowed to proceed in a democratic way for which it is we, who must change for peace?

The writer is author of Faith and Feminism in Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, June 23rd, 2019