ASHAR BAND: Girls now go to school in this mountain town and the military patrols keep security. But Saira Bibi's eyes still flash with pain and anger through the small gap in her veil as she recounts how the Taliban who once ruled here dragged her from home and flogged in front of her neighbors.
It didn't matter that she always wore a body-covering burqa, nor that she rarely left her mud-brick home. It didn't matter that her conservative in-laws scoffed at the accusation she was an adulterer. To the extremists who had taken over her tiny town above Pakistan's Swat Valley, a rumor was enough.
"They came and took me to the school, where 150 or 200 people had been gathered. They pushed me to the ground and hit me 15 times," says Bibi, 30, holding her 1-year-old son as he reaches for the safety pin keeping her veil in place. Her right hand fidgets under the fabric as she recalls her humiliation nearly two years ago.
Bibi is one of the first women to openly speak about being publicly punished during the Pakistani Taliban's rule over this resort area. Her tale is a painful reminder of how Swat's conservative, ethnic Pashtun culture descended into harsh theocratic rule that banned girls from school, women from markets and executed anyone who resisted.
An iconic video of a flogging much like Bibi describes helped galvanize Pakistani public support for last year's army offensive that finally drove the Taliban out of the Swat Valley, following several failed peace deals with the militants. The footage of the beating was shown repeatedly on national television, stirring outrage among many who were getting their first up-close glimpse of the Taliban's brutality.
More than a year since the offensive, life is starting to resemble normal in Swat. Schoolgirls again flock giggling on the streets of the main city, Mingora. Veiled women shop for food and clothes. Most of the 2 million who fled Taliban oppression and the fighting to oust them have returned.
"Our enrollment is increasing all the time," says Anwar Sultan, principal of the state-run Saidu Sharif girls' high school in Mingora. A loudspeaker recites Quranic verses as some 1,500 teenagers pour into the courtyard, some wearing high heels with their traditional tunics and bright shawls.
But not everything is as it was. Soldiers now stand on street corners and at checkpoints. The jagged mountain trail leading to Bibi's village of Ashar Band is strewn with the rubble of damaged buildings. Some 300 schools the Taliban burned in the region have not yet been rebuilt. Occasional attacks - a raid on a checkpoint last month wounded one soldier - remind residents that militancy is still a threat.
The Taliban takeover of Swat, which was near-total by 2008, came as a shock to many Pakistanis accustomed to thinking of the militants as far away, a mostly Afghan movement fighting American troops across the border. No one expected the homegrown version to start beheading people in a middle-class honeymoon destination only 175 miles (280 kilometers) away from Islamabad, the capital.
Many in the area were initially supportive when Swat Taliban leader Mullah Fazlullah began preaching hard-line Islam over local radio. Some women even donated their jewelry to the cause, according to Sultan, the school principal. But over the months, armed men started roaming through the area, meting out harsh punishment for anyone who opposed them and driving out local authorities.
Bibi was one of dozens of women who fell victim to the militants' zeal. On the porch of the couple's tiny dirt-floor home, Bibi and her husband, Fazal-e-Azim, say a vindictive cousin spread the false rumor she was unfaithful while Azim was working in another city.
Punishment was swift, even though Azim's own family argued her innocence.
"I only wish the same punishment for the people who unjustly punished my wife," Azim says.
Villager Sharif Khan, 70, recalls being forced at gunpoint to watch Bibi being beaten repeatedly with a stick, along with other villagers rounded up to the area.
"I felt sorry for her," Khan says. "But we were all helpless."
With the military now in control, the army has made efforts to improve lives of women in Swat. Among the initiatives outside Mingora is a vocational training center, where women study embroidery, glass-painting, hairstyling and other work they can do at home.
"According to our culture, women may make clothes or crafts to sell, but they do all this inside their homes, not outside," explains Uzma Nawaz, the center's 27-year-old director.
As for Bibi and Azim, they are moving on with their lives. Sitting by a cradle hanging from the rough-log roof beams, Bibi eyes soften as she nods to confirm she is pregnant again. She doesn't know if it's a boy or a girl, or what the family will do if the militants return, as some still fear in the valley.
Her husband, however, answers firmly.
"If the Taliban return," he says. "We will leave." – AP