Kiran Omar


Born to be illiterate – is that the fate of girls in certain parts of Pakistan?


In a recent speech, the Pakistani information minister Ms. Sherry Rehman declared that girls’ schools would reopen as scheduled in Swat and other areas of Northwest Pakistan, after the Winter break. The reverberations of her words had hardly faded, when five more girls’ schools were destroyed by Taliban bombs in a single day in clear defiance of her declaration. So much for firmness, resolve and rhetoric. The reality on the ground speaks otherwise. The ground reality shaped by the insurgents, point to the almost complete absence of the government’s writ in that region. The spiral of violence against girls’ education and visibility in society, continues relentlessly on a downward trend.


The Taliban boldly announced on 15 January a complete ban on education for girls and subsequently over a 100 schools in Swat, and over 150 in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), were immediately closed and the staff dismissed. Close to 100,000 girls are left without access to educational institutions and thousands of women teachers are deprived of their livelihood. Women are constantly threatened with acid attacks and severe physical punishment if they were visible in public spaces, attended schools, engaged in work outside the home, and were directed NOT venture out of their homes unless if they were completely veiled and accompanied by male relatives. (Yasmeen Hassan, [2009, January 26], “A War on Pakistan’s Schoolgirls”, Washington Post;  pg. A11).


Both the Federal government led by the People’s Party (PPP) and the provincial government led by the Awami National Party (ANP) appear helpless in curbing the Taliban’s growing belligerence. The National Assembly has passed “strongly worded” resolutions of condemnation. Both PM Gilani and President Zardari have come out vehemently against these acts, stating their government’s condemnation and “resolve” to stop them. The words are there, repeatedly assuring the public of the government’s displeasure, but what disappoints and frustrates, is the absence of affirmative actions to back the rhetoric. One is forced to ask the question: How committed IS this government to the welfare, protection and socio-economic development of women?


There is a serious disconnect between the words and the actions. It is quite apparent that the present government is disinterested in the empowerment of women, specially those residing in tribal areas, under tribal traditions, and shows no seriousness to take concrete steps to enable them  to effectively participate in their economic and social development and well-being. A case in point is the controversial and contentious appointments of federal ministers who have been active participants in highly illegal and immoral practices of allowing girls and young women to be traded like commodities, to settle tribal and clan vendettas at the directed of tribal jirgas (clan or group meetings of elders to settle disputes locally, based on tribal laws and traditions). These “tribal leaders” who are now installed as federal ministers, help perpetuate these atrocities against women.


The present government increasingly demonstrates an inclination towards engaging in dialogue with the Taliban, to arrive at a compromise allowing them to install their version of strict Sharia law in FATA and Swat region, in exchange, for a cessation violence and armed insurgency.


This move would legitimize the continued marginalization of women and a complete erosion of their rights in the Taliban controlled areas and prompt a spill-over effect to other parts of the country. We would see a scenario identical to what unfolded in Afghanistan during the Taliban’s years in government, in fact that same scenario is unfurling afresh in Afghanistan with the relentless expansion, once again, of the Taliban. The brutal and very public assassination of women lawmakers and public figures in Afghanistan in the recent past, are proof of the re-assertion of this influence. The US and its Allies presently engaged in Afghanistan, have been unable and perhaps, unwilling, to firmly and decisively, address this open assault against women. Political expediency has taken a front seat, and it is very clear, that the encroaching tide of re-Talibanization of that country, cannot be stemmed.


The imposition of Sharia law in Swat and FATA is the battle cry by which the insurgents aim to win the hearts and minds of the local population and silence their critics in mainstream Pakistani society. This slogan is gaining currency because in the first place, the civil judiciary failed to dispense affordable and fast justice, forcing the inhabitants seek help from the Taliban. While it is obvious that religion is manipulated and takes centre stage in this narrative of violence and brutality, the civil society must also bear its share of responsibility. Inefficient and corrupt judges, civil servants, and manipulative lawyers, and of course the long years under military rulers, have all combined to develop this sorry state of affairs . Mainstream Pakistanis are silenced when religion enters the discourse. Certainly there can be little opposition to defense of religion and imposition of its tenants.  What is not made apparent in this whole discourse, is the use of ignorance and misinformation as a powerful tool to win public sympathies.


Islam as a religion does not discriminate access of education and enlightenment by women. The opening verses of the Quran simply state…”Read…read in the name of thy Lord….” thereby establishing two premises, 1) the emphasis on education and enlightenment WITHOUT gender bias and 2) it places emphasis on education, enlightenment and knowledge, for the progress of HUMANKIND. Therefore there is no legitimate religious basis for denying women the right to seek knowledge and education. It is a question of interpretation and contextualization of the edicts of religion and manipulating them to promote other agendas.


If we take religion – Islam in this case- out of the paradigm, then we are left with the many headed hydra of “tradition” and the role of women within cultural tradition. In predominantly tribal societies like FATA, the Frontier regions and Southern Pakistan, namely Sindh and Baluchistan, there exist well established beliefs that the onus of upholding and preserving “traditions” rests on the shoulders of women. They are expected to modify all social behavior in conformity with the dictates of “family/clan/tribal HONOR”.


Tribal elders meet and decide fates of innocent and often underage girls, who are exchanged to settle vendettas between feuding families and tribes. Education opportunities are denied to them and they are given in marriage at a tender age, often to men several years older, condemned to a life of slavery and servitude. All this in the name of “HONOR” and its infinite preservation. Girls as young as toddlers, are traded like commodities and used as pawns in brokering peace and settling debts.


Ironically, the ruling classes that are drawn from these clan and tribal setups speak from two sides of their mouths. For their urban audiences, they decry such traditions but do not wish to undo them because herein lies their power to manipulate the masses. The so-called secular elite are as much to blame because they themselves perpetuate and strengthen this iniquitous system, especially with a judiciary that performs to their will.


Education has never been a priority for the severely impoverished families in these regions, specially female education. The rural populations are already heavily indebted to feudal landlords who maintain an iron grip on societal structure. Class mobility is almost completely absent. A nexus is formed between the feudal landholders, corrupt bureaucracy and the clergy to maintain the power structure and the status quo is rigidly maintained in the name of preserving “traditional culture.”


With the absence of substantive land reforms, the feudal-based societies are not only strong, they are thriving in Pakistan today. Feudal landlords participate vigorously in the many experiments the country has undergone with democracy, the present scenario included. The vote-banks that feudal candidates command, are phenomenal and no non-feudal candidate can hope to top them. The populations that these feudal establishments  “represent”, can never challenge their writ as they are de-facto “owned”, along with their possessions by the local landlord whose land they work for either a pittance or in exchange for grain and food. So when this powerful lobby enters into an unholy alliance with the bureaucracy, clergy and even the military, dissenting voices are silenced and human rights are eroded. Even Gen. Musharraf who did not tire of talking about his secular and egalitarian credentials, and supposedly championed the cause of the middle-class, did not shy away from incorporating the feudal lords to run his government. Both men and women suffer this erosion, and women, being the economically weak and deemed socially “inferior”, face almost complete marginalization. They effectively disappear from the fabric of society, condemned to a shadowy existence behind closed doors; mute, helpless and unable to participate in national life, unable to control their own destinies. 


If the present status quo is maintained, the great majority of rural girls and women can never hope to have unfettered access to education, training, economic freedom and mobility.  Their marginalization and disappearance from mainstream society will continue and their rights will continue to be eroded.


The Afghan model of Talibanization must not be repeated in Pakistan, but the present ineptitude of the government at tackling this growing problem, is indicating otherwise.  


(Kiran Omar can be reached at :

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