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Women in the firing line

Published Jan 05, 2013 03:02am


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THE recent cold-blooded murder of six young women charity workers in Swabi confirms a change in Taliban tactics. While never hesitating in their slaughter of undefended civilians, they now see that killing women volunteers is not just easy, but attains multiple results.

Many females in the NGO sector and government health programmes focus on the care of children and mothers. Their gender gives them access to conservative homes whose doors are closed to male colleagues. By murdering these defenceless women, the Taliban are discouraging others from carrying on this essential work.

By disrupting crucial anti-polio programmes, extremists are putting millions of children’s future at risk. Their excuse is that polio vaccines are in fact drugs to render young Pakistanis incapable of reproducing. This is part of an imaginary anti-Muslim campaign run by the West.

But while ignorant clerics might actually believe this nonsensical fantasy, cynical jihadis have seized upon it to push their larger agenda of dragging the country back to the seventh century. In this worldview, all modern science is anti-Islamic because most of it comes from the West.

These obscurantists are aware that they will be irrelevant in an educated, modern Pakistan. They are therefore bent on stopping progress: in a dysfunctional, backward country, they can hope to grab power as the Taliban did in Afghanistan.

Key to blocking change is to keep women ignorant and subordinate. Many studies in the developing world have confirmed that educated mothers are the most effective catalysts for progress.

So for years, clerics have preached that women should stay at home, and only grudgingly agreed that young girls can be educated at segregated schools.

However, extremists deny women even this concession: witness the Taliban’s closure of all girls’ schools when they were in power in Afghanistan. Mimicking this sick mindset, their Pakistani cousins have destroyed hundreds of girls’ schools and colleges.

The attack on young Malala is a part of this vicious misogynist campaign. By shooting a 15-year old girl who was determined to get an education, the Taliban sent out a powerful signal. Delighted with the publicity they received, they went on to target polio-immunisation teams, and then launch this recent attack in Swabi.

One reason the family planning programme in Pakistan has largely been a failure is that clerics have denounced it, and the state has been too feeble to take them on. Now, women — especially in the rural areas — have little or no access to medical advice if they want to limit the size of their families. Small wonder that our population growth rate is so frighteningly high.

The brutalisation of women across Pakistan is evident every day in the form of small newspaper headlines: honour killings, karo kari, and rapes happen every day, and are soon forgotten. In most cases, it is the victim who ends up getting blamed.

Perpetrators are hardly ever arrested, and almost never convicted.

In fact, it is virtually a crime to be born female in Pakistan. Over the years, things have got worse for them. Even though this government has established a commission to formulate recommendations and legislation to improve matters, we have a long way to go before real change becomes visible. And to its credit, a couple of progressive, pro-women laws have also been passed in its tenure.

Nevertheless, there is an environment sustained by the clergy and parts of the media that supports keeping women ‘in their place’. Millions of Pakistani men are subconsciously threatened by the thought of women attaining equality with them.

Many Muslims point to the fact that Islam accorded rights to women that were revolutionary when they were introduced. This is certainly true. But while giving women the right to inherit half the male heir’s share must have sounded generous in the seventh century, today, it seems there is room for debate.

It is this false feeling that women are protected in an Islamic society that fuels so much of the discrimination they face every day. The reality is that most of our attitudes are shaped by tribal customs and social traditions that have nothing to do with Islam. The full veil, for instance, finds no mention in the Holy Book. Only modesty is enjoined on both men and women.

In their efforts to keep women down, clerics have dug up obscure and dubious hadith in order to provide legitimacy to backward customs. We deliberately ignore the fact that in many Muslim countries, women work side by side with men, and those societies have made great progress as a result.

In Iran, a theocracy, family planning is widely practised with state support, and there are more women in universities than men. Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia are other examples where women enjoy equal rights in law and in reality.

The Pakistani clergy, however, is convinced that only their retrogressive interpretation of the faith — especially when it comes to women — is valid. They view their belief system as being threatened by any hint of innovation and change. In fact, the slogan of ‘Islam is in danger’ is raised at the drop of a hat. If one were to believe these fundamentalists, Islam is a fragile religion instead of the robust one being followed by some 1.5 billion believers around the world.

Despite the clear absurdity of many of these backward views, they have come to gain wide currency in Pakistan. Indeed, they inform, or misinform, the public discourse almost totally. Rational thought has been deprived of oxygen, and is now irrelevant. As a result, women and minorities suffer outrageous discrimination — and in recent years, murderous attacks.

The state has failed in its duty to protect its citizens, specially the most vulnerable ones. Above all, it has been incapable of countering the obscurantist message that the clerics have been so successful at disseminating. The school curriculum as well as TV signals are laced with the same poison.

Given the values successive generations of Pakistanis have absorbed, we shouldn’t be surprised by the widespread crimes against women. With good reason, jihadis and clerics see women as the greatest threat to their growing grip on power. Politicians, judges and generals all seem eager to appease the extremists instead of seeing them as the threat they are.

As long as we don’t confront this grim truth, women will continue to be targeted, and millions of kids will suffer from the Taliban’s wicked campaign.

The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West.


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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (9) Closed

A Rehman Khan Jan 05, 2013 06:03am
Besides political motives and pursuit of their wicked agenda by targeting women and children, the TTP has in the background one point agenda and that is to destroy Pakistan's infrastructure and weaken state organs. Though their ability to exert meaningful influence has diluted over past 5 years or so, such sporadic incidents causing surges in the print and electronic media are enough to raise concerns across the country. Unless, there is a serious strategy formulated by the government to take on this menace and work for their systematic and progressive elimination, things will not improve.
AHA Jan 05, 2013 12:18pm
A very important factor contributing to this is the fact that a significant number of our people believe that these health and charity workers are ?somehow? working against Islam. We will not be able to solve our problems unless we take care of this elephant in the room
Tribal Mento Jan 05, 2013 01:58pm
very well written, sir. The reactionary mindsets are a force to be reckoned with in Pakistan. Their street power is getting currency by the day. unfortunately, i can't see any reversal in this regard. We have seen it recently the way BB was killed, and the moderate voices like Salman Taseer & Bashir Bilour were silenced forever. And, now the innocent women are the latest victims of these frankensteins forces. Promulgating laws won't solve our problems until and unless these laws are implemented in its true letter and spirit.
RASTOGI Jan 05, 2013 03:05pm
Women empowerment is the sure shot formula for success.It`s indirect benefits are much more valuable to the society than just adding to the workforce. According to a recent report -Two-thirds of the out of school children in the country, over three million of them, are girls. Of the 49.5 million illiterate adults in Pakistan, again, two-thirds are women, the third highest rate in the world`-.Out of 190 million, I am sure women account for 90 million in Pakistan. Keeping such a large population locked in the time warp is a stupendous achievement of these mullahs and their cronies.
Shams Alam Jan 05, 2013 04:10pm
I agree. The government of Pakistan has to take all the imminization and family planning programs seriously if they want to improve the lives of all Pakistanis. They can take the example of Bangladesh. After the successful immunization and family planning helped Bangladesh to reduce the havoc of many childhood diseases and girls are now making 60% of the high school classes. Books are free upto class 8 and primary education would be extended to class 8 from class 5. Shams Alam
Hum Jan 05, 2013 04:20pm
Majority of the muslim coutries, including Pakistan has a culture of oppressing women and minorities; specially non-muslims. The only reason it seems that it is getting worse is because now we have social media, which reports more incidents.
aa Jan 05, 2013 04:56pm
one thing that has always puzzled me is when and how exactly did Pakistanis start believing that they were the leaders of the Islamic world? Who invited them to take that role? How did Pakistan fulfill that role?
Ishfaq Ilahi Choudhury Jan 06, 2013 06:57am
It appears to me that the slide into Talibanization of Pakistan is unstoppable. Very sad indeed.
Akai Jan 05, 2013 07:06pm
Step by step, in a calculated manner, the Taliban are obliterating all the attributes of decency and human values. Where are security forces, and when will the Chief who was given extension primarily to quell the menace take all-out action?