COMMENT: The worst place for women—Rafia Zakaria
If the deaths of Pakistani civilians are considered unavoidable in the campaign to eliminate Al Qaeda, then a special dedicated fund must be created for the displaced, widowed, disempowered women that are left helpless in the wake of the war on terror
It was the deadliest bombing in Pakistan in two years and it target was clear: not the police, not the security forces, not political leaders, but Peshawar’s women. The site of the blast, Peshawar’s Meena Bazar, as is well known in the area, is an exclusively women’s shopping area where women and children shop for clothing, household wares and similar goods. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of those killed were women and children. The carnage was splayed across television screens just as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was visiting Pakistan and meeting with her counterpart Shah Mehmood Qureshi.
While the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan have denied involvement in the bombing, investigations, the modus operandi of the attack and most importantly the target of the bombing all point to their culpability. Most significant of these factors is that the attack targeted women. It is after all females who have borne the brunt of the TTP’s onslaught since they began their reign of terror in the northwest of Pakistan. As the Taliban’s war against the Pakistani state has ensued, the marginalisation of women, the destruction of schools constructed for their education and their banishment from public spaces like the Meena Bazar have been a central facet of the Taliban’s campaign of terror and hatred. This latest attack thus fits perfectly into this grimly familiar design. The massive and indiscriminate killing of scores of innocent women and children who had dared to leave the walls of their home inculcates the very fear that the Taliban seek to instil among Pakistani women across the country.
The timing of the attack also made a particular point. It came hours after Secretary Clinton had landed in Pakistan. In this sense, it marked the Taliban’s disapproval not only of United States policies but perhaps also of the fact that one of their leaders, a woman, was arriving in Pakistan to negotiate with Pakistani government officials. What better way, in their thinking, to illustrate their opposition to women being in the public sphere than to kill them with impunity. In killing them in this way, the Taliban draw their moral lines between women: the good ones that remain invisible and behind closed doors, and the bad ones public, visible and shopping in markets. While the Meena Bazar in Peshawar will not likely sport a sign like the market in Mingora that loudly proclaims the space to be forbidden to women, the bombing will undoubtedly scare women from leaving their homes in the future.
Yet to pin the blame of Pakistani women’s forgotten lot on the Taliban alone would be inaccurate. According to the latest report released by the World Economic Forum’s Task Force on Gender Disparity, Pakistan is third to last (132 out of 134) in the gender gap between men and women. It is lower than countries like Saudi Arabia, where women cannot drive or vote, and better than only two countries, Chad and Yemen.
These statistics mean that relatively speaking Pakistani women have the largest difference in political, social and economic resources available to them relative to Pakistani men. Being born a girl in Pakistan, according to the data provided by the report, means that the individual in question will have lower or no access to healthcare, little or no access to economic opportunity and little or no access to political participation.
If the statistics provided by World Economic Forum report are any basis for analysis then Pakistan is one of the worst places in the world to be born a woman. To this ignominy, the devolution of their status has not been recent, as the same statistics reveal the status of women in Pakistan has hovered at the bottom of the list for the past several years.
Many volumes have been written about the complexities behind the current condition of Pakistani women and they all contain valuable information. In the midst of the particular context of the bomb blast in Peshawar, the visit of Secretary Clinton and this recent empirical confirmation of Pakistan’s failings, they have been brought into sharp focus. The cumulative tragedy is that despite all of these confirmations, none of the players in this sordid game, neither the Taliban, the army, the government nor the United States are likely to do anything at all to alleviate the situation.
But lest, this inaction be considered the product of a lack of ideas or recommendations, let me offer a few. Just as added security has been provided to military and police installations, similarly added security needs to be provided to institutions of higher education catering to females and to other public venues where women have a presence. A national debate needs to ensue about the public roles of women in our society; one that must be initiated by those elite women that feel themselves insulated from the onslaught of the Taliban by the shallow comforts of wealth and social status. Those that have power among women must give some credence and reality to the suffering of those that are silent, voiceless and — if the current destruction is to continue — nearly dead.
Finally, the United States, whose eminent representative is currently in Pakistan, must give some serious consideration to how its policies impact the condition of Pakistani women. Some basic contradictions exist between the empowerment of local tribes and the simultaneous lip service that is given to aiding NGOs. For all their ubiquity as a cheaply available, locally trained fighting force against the Taliban, local tribes are the source of many customs that enslave women to archaic customs.
If the deaths of Pakistani civilians are considered unavoidable in the campaign to eliminate Al Qaeda, then a special dedicated fund must be created for the displaced, widowed, disempowered women that are left helpless in the wake of the war on terror. Since global security seems to be riding on the fate of Pakistan, the world must invest in uplifting its women.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org