As Pakistan prepares to define the parameters of talks with the Taliban, certain questions and concerns are missing from our media. Specifically, the question of women in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) has, so far, been omitted from the discourse in the mainstream media. During the past decade, reporting on FATA has largely been limited to drone attacks, martyrs versus non-martyrs, the US-led war or our own war, military operations and the subsequent displacement of a large number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). The human side of this war — especially its gender effects — is rarely discussed in our media. The miseries of women in FATA because of mass migration, internal displacement, rape, abuse and killings in this war have received little attention or sympathy. No help is available for women widowed or sexually abused, and their children, semi-orphaned, during this war.
Women and children in camps and different villages are traumatised but, because of conservative cultural norms and traditions, they cannot seek help or counselling. According to a recent study, a great majority (71 percent of respondents in IDP camps), believe they suffer from depression, anxiety and other psychological issues, particularly among women and children. Women are less likely to share their burdens however, and have learnt to dull their feelings and remain silent.
The already existing vacuum created by Article 247-B of Pakistan’s constitution, which put FATA outside the jurisdiction of Pakistan’s Supreme Court (SC) and parliament, had already isolated the region, particularly in times of ongoing militancy. That vacuum was filled with traditions, local customs and tribal jirgas (councils) and was further widened when the Taliban entered the area, exploiting the situation and making the administrative system ineffective. Their stern, dogmatic views have made women’s rights to education, voting and free movement the main casualty in the current situation.
With the estimated seven million population of FATA, women constitute up to 60 percent of the workforce in the agricultural sector, mainly to earn their sustenance and support their families. With the Taliban takeover, many were restricted to staying indoors. The loss of their workforce has pushed some families, especially those families that have no male breadwinner, into extreme poverty.
The Taliban’s foremost ideological agenda seemed to be annihilation of educational institutions across FATA. Bombings of girls’ schools in FATA by the Taliban were coupled with girls being banned from attending schools. There are news reports that the remaining schools were taken over by the army as base camps. According to official data from the FATA Secretariat, 450 schools in FATA were bombed in recent years. With less than three percent literacy rate among FATA women, the destruction of infrastructure, and forcefully stopping girls from going to school has further affected the lives of women in one of the poorest regions in the world.
While the education sector suffers from bombing of schools by the Taliban, the health sector has also had a major setback in the targeting of polio workers in the region. The already non-existent health infrastructure in FATA has further deteriorated with ongoing militancy. FATA has 41 hospitals for its estimated seven million population. There is one bed for every 2,327 people as compared to 1,450 in the rest of Pakistan. For a population of 8,189, only one doctor is available and a mere 43 percent of people have access to safe drinking water. The Taliban banned women from stepping out of the house without a mehram (male guardian). With restricted mobility, women and children cannot visit health clinics, thus affecting their health and wellbeing. During Taliban sharia rule in Afghanistan, many women died of minor ailments because of their restricted mobility, and the added restriction that women could only by treated by female doctors.
Taliban control in FATA has created a system that runs parallel to the one already operating (albeit dysfunctionally), making it more oppressive and further subjugating women in the region. The recent development of talks with the Taliban and the subsequent demand of Taliban-imposed shariat ignore the question of women. In fact, they ignore the lives of people in FATA. Does this mean that the impending imposition of official sharia will replace the old system operating in FATA? Will imposition of sharia with state blessing acknowledge the basic rights of women? Will women’s right to education, healthcare and free movement be ensured?
The implementation of sharia by the Taliban, even in its very strict sense, ideally should not have affected the education, health and work rights of these women but the Pakistani Taliban version of sharia is more regressive and ‘Arabised’ in nature than Islamic. The Taliban in Pakistan have given the same edicts that were made by the Taliban in Afghanistan regarding women, making it one of the most misogynist movements in the world. Unfortunately, with their myopic sharia, girls were forced to stay indoors, schools were closed and their mobility was restricted in the Taliban-controlled areas of FATA. It is very clear that the Taliban are averse to even a limited role for women, like the one women in FATA had before. This is their policy agenda of sharia, regarding women.
The Taliban have achieved their aim of becoming non-state national actors by pretending to be concerned about the constitution and the future political agenda it wants to set, but we know that these concerns will only be entertained by Pakistan in areas that do not come under the constitution like FATA. However, with state approval, this tyranny will become official.
All these basic concerns of the women in FATA — who are already burqa-clad, have restricted mobility and are suppressed in the name of patriarchy — should be addressed if we want to talk about durable solutions in the region. Women become the worst victims of war and the biggest stakeholders of peace. How does our country expect a ‘return’ to peace when women, who are already a part of the marginalised system, will be further persecuted with state blessings and tribal selective sharia? The precedent of Taliban rule and their treatment of women are visible next door to us. Ignoring the question of women and their stake in the possible imposition of the Taliban version of sharia in FATA in our dialogue with the Taliban is criminal neglect, and one that our liberals are quiet about since achieving peace is a desperate priority for the state. Recently, the Senate passed a resolution asking the government to protect the rights of women and minorities in the peace talks but how is that resolution extendible or binding on the government when Article 247-B puts FATA outside the jurisdiction of parliament? Achieving ‘peace’ by ignoring half the population of FATA would be a farce.
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