The women from Kohistan

January 09, 2013


FOUR women clapping and two men dancing appeared in a grainy cellphone video from a remote village said to be in Kohistan.

The ill-fated gathering was said to have occurred somewhere at the end of May 2012. A few days later, a television channel reported that all four women had been killed, having been sentenced by a jirga for the crime of dancing, clapping and mixing with men of another tribe.

No one knows if the incident in the video actually took place. No one knows if the four women in the muted wedding finery of a village celebration were even present in the same room as the men. No one knows if they are alive now.

The two men in the video, Bin Yasir and Gul Nazar, who had also been sentenced to death by the jirga, were nominated in a police report for the crime of filming women in a conservative region. They fled from the village but were eventually apprehended and put in prison.

In the days immediately after, the video and its sordid aftermath were splashed across television screens all over Pakistan, the women and their naïve claps all underscoring the tragedy that every viewer knew was about to befall.

There were many stories about each step of the incident. The men and women in the video belonged to different tribes, the Azadkhel and the Salekhel. It was the Azadkhel tribe, to which the women belonged, that condemned all six to death. Mohammad Afzal, whose younger brothers had appeared in and been accused of having taken the video, alleged that the four women had been killed in May last year according to the writ of the tribal jirga and that he had himself seen their fresh graves in the forest.In June, a commission sent to the village on the orders of the Supreme Court, which took suo moto notice of the issue, found otherwise. Farzana Bari, who headed the fact-finding inquiry team, confirmed that the four women were alive. However, she also said that she had met only two of them and that it was not possible for any of them to be produced in court.

Mohammad Afzal continued to insist that the women were in fact dead. The court believed the fact-finding commission and the case of the girls from Kohistan was closed.

Rumours of the women being alive or dead were not the only confusion on the issue; reports have also accumulated that assert that the video was fake, with the boys having edited it together as an ill-thought prank.

Regardless of the truth of that matter, the video was not done with taking the lives of Kohistani villagers. Just a few days ago, three brothers of the men in the video were also killed and several women of the tribe injured when men seeking to avenge the dishonour of their women being videotaped surrounded the house of the accused men and opened fire.

According to one of the survivors, the men who came to kill said that they would not rest until the entire family was eliminated. The day after, the Supreme Court issued a statement saying that it was considering reopening the case of the women from Kohistan.

In a country where the murders of prime ministers and presidents go unsolved for decades, it is uncertain whether the truth about the girls from Kohistan will ever be known. To hope for DNA analysis of the buried bodies or any sort of examination of the video itself to see if it is authentic seems, within the given context, a fantastic scheme.

It is, however, important to look at the case of the girls from Kohistan as an expression of just how modern technology collides with tribal mores in an explosive and deadly mix. The secret video camera, with its sinister ability to capture unwitting and perhaps unwilling subjects in acts of spying, represents a new tool for moral policing that far outdoes the human eye in surveillance.

The case of the women from Kohistan is hardly the first expression of this collision of the never-seen with the always-present. A year before the Kohistan case, a man of the Madakhel tribe in a district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was killed allegedly for having a picture of a girl on his cellphone.

Mohammad Yasin had fled to Karachi but was apprehended by men of the tribe who killed him.

Unsurprisingly, no one knows what happened to the girl but a jirga met a few weeks after his death to ban cellular phones with cameras within their region. In other cases in the past year, blasphemy charges have also been levelled using cellphone text messages as a basis for accusations.

The point underscored by all of these cases is the same: in a country where public shame remains the backbone of morality and what is visible is the basis of sin and accusation, the arrival of the cellphone camera poses a big threat. As can be seen in the case of the Kohistan women, the very existence of the video indicts before a trial, shames before analysis and convicts without further evidence.

What it represents, however, is the constriction of private space even further and an extension of moral policing into realms that were never before visible — and experiments (such as the piecing together of this image with that) suddenly possible.

In the coming days, the court might take the case up again. But the real question, likely to go unanswered in the morass of legalities, is the issue of privacy for the woman or the citizen or the wedding guest whose simple, helpless presence can be transformed, taped and broadcast with the cheap, sly surveillance of a camera on a phone.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.