The theme of International Women's Day on March 8 is 'women and men united to end violence against women and girls'.
It is quite ironic that at a time when the UN is focusing on eliminating violence against women, the Pakistan government and the army have sought to buy peace in Swat by surrendering in this once idyllic valley many of the rights and freedoms women have won over the years in the country.
Some may view last month's peace agreement differently. Protagonists have argued that the accord which provides for the imposition of the Nizam-i-Adl in Malakand is quite benign. According to them, it will not change the laws. It will only revert to the system of justice that was in force in the good old days before the state was merged with the NWFP.
But there are some aspects of the situation in Swat that should be addressed seriously. First, the circumstances under which the deal has been negotiated are not very propitious. The Taliban have blackmailed the government and imposed their will simply by resorting to violence and brutality. Their success in having their way will encourage militants to repeat the strategy of violence in other parts of the country — and have their way yet again.
Second, the agreement has been at the expense of women. Just how much the women and girls of Swat have suffered since the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan gained ascendancy in the region is well-known. The accord that was concluded contains no word on what the status of women is to be under the new system of Sharia. It contains no word of apology to the women whose lives were cut short, whose livelihoods were destroyed and whose education was interrupted so brutally. And what about the women whose male kin were tortured and murdered in the name of the Taliban's brand of Sharia?
The army also played havoc with the lives of men and women. It made its own contribution to the disruption of education by putting up its camps in schools — 15 institutions are still occupied — preventing children from pursuing their studies.
Most disconcerting is that we now know little about what is happening in Swat. On Saturday, the NWFP information minister expressed satisfaction at the situation in the valley. But there is no way of verifying his claim. A veil of silence has descended on events in Swat leaving us in the dark about developments in the post-agreement period. This is disturbing especially when immediately after the ceasefire the predominant mood has been one fear. People say, “Wait and see.”
The main question that has agitated the minds of those who are concerned about the women and girls of Swat is how the agreement is being implemented with regard to them. With nearly 185 schools totally/partially destroyed the children, especially girls, have been effectively excluded from the education system. We have only been told in terse statements that schools have reopened, and colourful pictures of innocent-looking girls with headscarves have been splashed across the media.
First-hand accounts, however, have a different story to tell. The school authorities in Mingora confirmed to me that private schools opened soon after the agreement was concluded but that attendance has been thin, especially in the secondary classes. Many parents are afraid to send their girls to school while others have left their homes to move to other parts of the country and have still not returned. Government schools opened on Monday as scheduled but only a handful of girls showed up.
The worst affected are the rural areas where the Taliban's presence continues to be pretty visible — in violation of the peace agreement — and the fear they have generated still grips the people. Since the government's writ fails to run there is a general sense of insecurity and lack of confidence in the government's capacity to provide protection to women.
Have the Taliban and the authorities done anything to clear the atmosphere of fear and terror they had spread to force women to stay at home? In the absence of assurances and the writ of the state many girls and women do not venture out of their homes for fear of falling victim to the violence of the Taliban. With no move to rebuild the damaged schools, girls have been, ingeniously, kept away from education.
The illegal FM radio broadcasts that were used to spread terror by Mullah Fazlullah, earning him the epithet of Maulana Radio, have not been jammed. Neither have the air waves been used by the Taliban to revoke their earlier edicts banning female education.
But why is Swat shrouded in secrecy? Events have taken such a turn — whether by accident or design — that Swat has receded to the backburner. The killing of Musa Khankhel, a local journalist, has had a terribly dampening impact on the media. The horrific event came just two days after the agreement and on the day Sufi Mohammad met Mullah Fazlullah to discuss its implementation. As it came to light that Musa had been receiving threats from both sides — the Taliban and the army — before
he was murdered, journalists in the valley have lost heart and are no longer as active as they were before.
Equally disturbing is the turbulence that has overtaken Punjab politics in the wake of the Supreme Court judgment in the Sharif brothers' case. Media attention is now focused on the confrontation between the PPP and the PML-N, and Swat is a story of the past, even though it should not be.
All this can only leave one guessing about the fate of women in Swat, in fact, about the goings-on in the valley. This is not a case of cosmetic changes being introduced in the judicial system. Swat is actually regressing. In any society where this phenomenon occurs the yardstick to measure the slide that is taking place is to assess the status of women under the new order. If their freedoms have been snatched from them and then not restored in the same measure as before, isn't it a case of one step forward two steps back?