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Pakistan: The first casualty of ‘Islamic’ militancy is women’s rights

Vigilantes, the state and that flogging thing


By Beena Sarwar


The first casualty of war may be truth but the first casualty of any ‘religious militancy’ is women’s rights.

In the now famous ‘flogging video’ — undated footage shot with a cell phone in Swat (judging by the language and clothes) — a man whips a woman in red lying face down on the ground, pinned down by two men, encircled by a crowd of other men. It is painful to watch the leather strap thwack down on her buttocks as she cries out in pain. There is much obscene in this image, not least the man holding down her arms, squatting so that her burqa-covered hea d is practically forced between his thighs.

The video, circulated on the Internet before local television channels broadcast it, caused a furore in Pakistan and internationally. What caused the outrage? The public punishment meted out to a woman — or the fact that it was broadcast?

Those who helped make the incident public, including the man who told television channel Dawn News that he made the video, and an anthropologist- filmmaker with NGO links are under threat for their part in what many term a ‘drama’ staged to give ‘a bad name’ to Pakistan and to Islam. Political forces and local residents join this chorus, terming the broadcast a bid to sabotage the peace deal.

The Taliban claim that the woman who was really flogged was accused of fornicating with her father in law, and that small boys meted out the punishment (that is, to humiliate rather than hurt). The woman in the video, whose face is never visible, was accused of ‘adultery’— after allegedly being in the company of a na-mehram (unrelated) man — who was also flogged. Her subsequent denial of the flogging before a magistrate may reflect the intimidation she faces. The point is, someone was flogged, and it wasn’t the first time that the Taliban meted out such a public punishment.

All this diverts from the real issues. For one thing, such punishments have been and legally can be meted out to women in Pakistan, thanks to Gen. Zia-ul Haq’s controversial Hudood laws. Political dissidents and journalists have felt the lash on their backs. So have some women — a few in prison and at least one publicly in Bahawalpur. Since Zia’s time, the state has not administered this punishment — but two decades after his departure, vigilantes trying to establish their writ are following that path. And last but not least, the flogging was only part of the all-pervasive issue of violence against women that already exists in the region.

Women across South Asia are verbally and physically abused every minute of the day, every day of the year. If there are ‘honour killings’ in Pakistan, there are ‘dowry deaths’ and female foeticide in India. According to the 2008 annual report of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), at least 1,210 women were killed during 2008, including at least 612 in so-called “honour killings” and at least 185 over domestic issues.

Such violence is made all the more pervasive by the widely accepted tradition that family members can punish (although this is not always mandatory) — although not usually in public — females who transgress their code of honour. The Taliban’s public violence goes against this code. It also overshadows ‘private’ gender violence, like swara (giving away women in order to end a conflict), stove burnings and beatings.

The first casualty of war may be truth but the first casualty of any ‘religious militancy’ (Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jewish or whatever) is women’s rights. During the Zia years, American and Pakistani intelligence agencies boosted this tendency when they re-invented the Afghan war of liberation against Soviet occupation as a religious war. The Mujahideen’s launching pads against the Soviets in Pakistan’s tribal areas are sanctuaries for their successors, the Taliban. The drug trade used to finance the war contributed to growing lawlessness, worsened by the influx of weapons. Sectarian violence escalated when the ‘jihad’ boomeranged after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan. The suicide bombing in Chakwal recently is just the latest such attack on Shi’a places of worship.

The Taliban’s treatment of women, including their ban on female education while in power in Afghanistan (please note, before American drone attacks) takes further Zia’s obsession with controlling women’s morality and public behaviour.

They have destroyed hundreds of girls’ schools, besides targeting teachers and non-government organisations (NGOs) attempting to provide health and education facilities in the area. Such NGOs have been under attack since before 9/11. Remember the summer of 2001, when Taliban attacked NGO offices in the tribal areas. The tragic murder in Mansehra of three women and their driver working for an NGO focusing on education on April 6 comes barely a year after an armed attack, also in Mansehra, in February 2008, when a dozen gunmen burst into the office of an organisation focusing on children and rehabilitation work since the 2005 earthquake. Their indiscriminate fire left four employees dead.

Those terming the video ‘fake’ argue that no one who was really flogged would be able to sit at all, the girl sat up then walk on her own feet as the girl in the video did as she was led away. However, psychiatrists say that in “no one who was actually flogged would be able to do that.”

Many beg to differ. “If I was whipped in front of a crowd of men, I would be so eager to get away from them that I would have run,” says Faiza, a lawyer friend in Karachi.

Psychiatrists agree, noting that in emotionally highly charged situations, the body functions at a higher metabolic level to overcome physical pain. “The need to escape from her tormentors and the crowd around her would momentarily take precedence over the pain,” explains eminent psychiatrist Dr. Haroon Ahmed.

Nasir Zaidi, one of the four journalists who were whipped during the early days of the Zia regime says, “it is entirely possible. We were whipped with a proper ‘hunter’ — not a leather strap, and walked away. So did a young boy who was flogged before us. We did not want them to see our weakness.”

Hadd punishments (amputation, flogging, stoning to death) imposed on Pakistan by Gen. Zia in the name of religion have witness requirements so strict that they can practically never be met. These laws made adultery (sex between consenting adults) a criminal offence and rape a private one, punishable by flogging or stoning to death. Earlier, under the Pakistan Penal Code, adultery was a private offence, compoundable and bailable, punishable by five years or a fine, or both. The state could not be a party to prosecuting adultery.

In 1981, the Federal Shariat Court pronounced that stoning to death was not even an Islamic punishment (PLD 1981 FSC 145 Hazoor Baksh). Gen. Zia had the bench changed. The new bench upheld the punishment. Islamic scholars like Dr. Mohammad Farooq Khan of Mardan term the Hudood laws “the biggest insult to Islam.” The Council of Islamic Ideology has found them to be flawed and inconsistent with the teachings of Islam (CII Report, 2006).

Gen. Zia’s use of Islam for political purposes was meant partly to drum up support for the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, and partly to create terror and render the populace incapable of protest against oppression. This is what the Taliban are also doing. They have in the past deliberately videotaped such punishments and circulated the footage.

In March 2007 Taliban in Khyber Agency publicly stoned and then shot dead a woman and two men on charges of adultery. They videotaped the shooting and circulated it — footage even the most sensationalist channel would think twice about broadcasting. The ‘Swat flogging video’ is an aberration only in that the local media broadcast it. One reason for the broadcast (conspiracy theories aside) was that the footage, while horrific, involved no blood or limbs being lopped off.

There have been other incidents of public executions of men and women in the region. In September 2007, the beheaded bodies of two women kidnapped in Bannu were found with a note in Pashto warning that all women “involved in immoral activities” would meet the same fate — like Shabana, the dancer in Mingora who was shot dead.

One reason for the Pakistani state’s apparent paralysis is that the armed forces and large sections of the population think of this as America’s war, compared to the previous Afghan war with its religious trappings. In fact, that was less ‘our war’ than the current one, which threatens the very existence of the Pakistani state.

Source: The Hindu, New Delhi

(Beena Sarwar is an independent journalist and a documentary filmmaker based in Karachi.)

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