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Main victims of terror in Pakistan are its women

By Arfa Khanum Sherwani
February 09, 2010 15:17 IST
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For militants, controlling women's independence as well as their sexuality becomes the easiest way of showcasing their command and authority. But in the case of Pakistan, it only gives fodder to the pre-existing patriarchal traditions towards women, writes Arfa Khanum Sherwani.

wenty-five-year-old Sunita George, a Christian by religion, is contemplating if she should continue her modelling profession. Life had been feathery with a thriving career, fame and good money till things got iniquitous after two bearded men entered a boutique on Karachi's Zamzama Boulevard where Sunita was browsing with her model friends.

They threatened the girls to dump their western outfits, cover their heads and stay indoors or face the consequences.

It's not that Sunita and girls like her were unacquainted of the developments taking place in their country -- radical forces in the bordering areas of North West Frontier Province and Federally Administered Tribal Areas attacking security establishment as well as moral policing by intimidating men not to shave, compelling women to wear the burqa and stay away from films and music. But hardly had they thought that it would get to the heart of the country, a very progressive and most cosmopolitan Karachi.

Unlike most of urban Pakistan, which is relatively conservative, in Karachi, women wearing jeans, saris and trendy salwar suits are a common sight. The city also has the highest percentage of middle-class women in the work force. This could be the reason, as observers say, why some extremist parties have targeted this city in their 'cleansing drive'.

It's not only about wearing decent outfits. The radical groups are also against women's education. In NWFP and adjoining FATA areas, girl's schools had been bombed only to create a fear psychosis. Around 300 damaged school buildings never got renovated. It was seen as an attempt to discourage families from sending the girl child to the school. No wonder it is a body blow to the women's literacy programmes in the male-dominated areas where the literacy rate among females is quite poor.

Not just young girls but grown up women -- many of them married and having the approval of their husbands to work -- were cogently bunked from going to their work places, badly affecting the social and economic condition of women in the province. The government could do nothing but be a meagre spectator.

After Afghanistan, Pakistan probably is the other nation where we find the civilisation taking a step back to the pre-historic era. Religious extremism works like plague, seizing the mind, body and soul. It is a well-recognised fact that whenever and wherever in the world there have been religious movements, freedom of women becomes the first casualty.

For militants, controlling women's independence as well as their sexuality becomes the easiest way of showcasing their command and authority. But in the case of Pakistan, it only gives fodder to the pre-existing patriarchal traditions towards women. It seems to suit all and sundry except for those women who have long enjoyed the liberal environments of progressive cities.

Consequently, the primary and principal victims of terrorism in Pakistan are none other than its women. Either way they happen to be at the receiving end of this terror trail. They get bombed; their husbands get killed, leaving them more susceptible to extremist threats.

The swelling threats in Karachi are forcing young women to dress up more conservatively just to keep a low profile and avoid public gaze. But this is not just about wearing one type of clothes or the other; it is also a question of who should be dictating to the Pakistani citizens for what they wear, eat and how they live. Or should anybody be dictating at all?

More than mere women's freedom and cosmopolitanism of a city, the bigger threat is to the authority of a government of a sovereign country. Women's security and independence directly connect to the law and order situation -- one of the basic institutions of an independent terrain.

At one glance, Karachi looks like any other international city with swanky airports, newly built gleaming flyovers, multi-storeyed magnificent shopping malls and incessant traffic on highways. It is incredible that one part of this very nation is under siege where some 30,000-odd soldiers are fighting a decisive battle with 10,000 dangerous armed men for its very subsistence.

One will witness the other side of this glossy picture when the local residents warn you not to wander alone as you may be subjected to the risk of being looted, pestered or murdered. In just a week's time, several cases have been registered of educated young men stealing cars from posh colonies, snatching jewellery from women and even murdering anyone for the sake of a few thousand rupees. Is it still intricate to comprehend that more than terrorism it is the lawlessness, unemployment and high inflation which are bigger threats to Pakistan.

One concludes that in some way these Talibani dictates are also interrelated to the inadequacies in the law and order system.

It will be shying away from the truth to say that the condition of women was elevated in the past but the Talibanisation has actually licensed this atrocious sexual subjugation.

The brighter portrait of Pakistan is also shown by its women only; undeterred by threats they are skirmishing for the cause of fellow women, taking part in political processions, demonstrating in front of the judiciary, speaking their minds on television either as anchor persons, reporters (a good number of women journalists are entering the Pakistani electronic media while some of them have already become household names) or experts as well as giving refuge to women dreading for their lives.

This is the time when civil society -- men or women, journalists and judiciary -- come around to the plight of women before they are taken over by extremist forces. All they need to do is support, for the women know how to lead.

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Arfa Khanum Sherwani