April Issue 2016
The Killing Fields
Religion and culture are all-encompassing in traditional and underdeveloped societies. When such regions are hit by conflict, the first wave of violence always seems to affect women and children.
In conflict-ridden Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal belt, for instance, in the last decade, it is the women of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s Swat and FATA areas that have suffered silently at the hands of non-state actors, tacitly given space by the state. The recent gory video of an Afghan woman buried in a pit, being pelted with stones for alleged adultery, circulating on social media, is one such example. Her crime was that she ran away from a forced marriage.
Her tormentors were chanting the name of God, and the woman identified as Rukhsana was also calling out to God for help, in her anguish. Ironically, it happened in a province which is headed by a female, Governor Seema Joyenda. She has been quoted by CNN as saying that the provincial authorities failed to take any action on the incident that happened in Aurdak, a small village in the province of Ghor.
Earlier, another young woman named Farkhanda, who had objected to a pir’s practice of giving taweez to the poor, was lynched in Kabul by a religiously-incited mob. A mullah made a public announcement that she had burned pages of the Quran which triggered the attack on her outside Kabul’s Shah-Do Shamshira mosque.
With the arrival of the political Islam of the Taliban and with it, religious extremism, women in this region have experienced some of the harshest punishments at the hands of religious zealots, such as flogging in public, physical mutilation of private body parts and, in some extreme cases, lynching, stoning and beheading. The rise of the Taliban is accompanied by a disturbing increase in the curbs being placed on women in the name of religion. Women in this part of the world are having to deal with not just issues of day-to-day survival, but the psychological warfare being waged in the conflict zones.
In post-war Afghanistan, women’s bodies have become battlegrounds of fundamentalist religious discourse. The conservative cultures of Afghanistan, FATA and Swat, which introduced a harsh theocratic rule that banned girls from school and women from market places, executed anyone that challenged the Taliban’s strict code of conduct for women. The burqa was also enforced. The Taliban took over Swat in 2008, and mainstream Pakistan got the first glimpse of their ruthlessness through a video that was screened by most Pakistani TV channels, showing the public flogging of a woman, later identified as Saira Bibi. She was falsely accused of committing adultery and was one of several unfortunate victims of the moral and religious policing of the Taliban in Swat.
On July 5, 2012, Farida Afridi, the co-founder of an NGO working to promote women’s rights in FATA, was shot dead. Subsequently a lady health worker, Surraiya Bibi, from Kurram agency was ambushed on her way back from Peshawar in an ambulance; she was gang-raped and later killed by the Taliban. The gory video of her rape and brutal killing was circulated via phone to instil fear among working women. After that incident, lady health workers and teachers either resigned or went on indefinite leave. Those were very difficult times. Women were prevented from stepping out of their homes. Schools all over the region were blown up – particularly girls’ schools – because education was considered a western and morally corrupting practice for women.
The culture of silence and fear also prevented many in FATA from speaking up against these crimes carried out in the name of religion. Women from the ‘enemy’ side in these conflict zones were considered Maal-e-Ghanimat(war bounty) – another religiously justified and perpetrated crime.
In 2009, Afghanistan officially banned certain brutal practices of religious militants such as beheading and stoning. Swat has long been reclaimed by the Pakistan military from the clutches of militants, although women in FATA are still going through the turmoil of displacement due to clean-up operations. Their lives are in limbo. The region is still plagued with instances where religion and culture are meshed together to legitimise violence, and limit a woman’s right to self-determination by controlling her body and sexuality. Noreen Naseer, an academician and researcher from FATA, says, “Unfortunately, in the traditional societies of Afghanistan and Pakistan, informal set-ups (jirga/shuras) have overpowered formal government machinery; hence, the weakest suffer at the hands of such informal systems.”
Decades of conflict have left the state apparatus in tatters in Afghanistan. As for PATA and FATA, they have yet to be mainstreamed with the rest of Pakistan in terms of self-rule. FATA is administered and adjudicated by a colonial set of laws called the Frontier Crimes Regulations, in which the only clause pertaining to women is that regarding punishment for adultery. Informal apparatuses, such as shuras and jirgas, are functioning in conflict-ridden spaces, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. Most of them lack modern knowledge and training, and employ religious tools, thus challenging fragile formal structures.
Afghan writer Spogmay Waziri Kakar says, “Afghanistan is a patriarchal society, and men usually decide women’s fate and discriminate against them. Secondly, most mullahs and religious scholars in Afghanistan do not have a specific understanding of the teachings of the Quran and Hadith. They might know that stoning is mentioned in a Hadith, but they either turn a blind eye to the conditions [where it applies] or simply don’t understand it, or don’t want to understand it.”
One of the repercussions that states experience after going through conflicts that have led to devastating impacts, is an increased tolerance of violence within communities – especially among women and girls. Moral outrage falters amid cautious statements about respecting religious edicts and the culture of the area. In the recent instance of Rukhsana’s unjust stoning, one came across many Afghans who regarded her action as zina or adultery, hence liable to punishment by stoning, according to one Hadith. And the clergy took a lead in this regard. According to the New York Times, Maulvi Inayatullah Baleegh, during his sermon at Kabul’s biggest Pul-e-Khishti mosque on a Friday, said, “If you’re married and you commit adultery, you have to be stoned.”
In his interview with the New York Times, Maulvi Baleegh also declined to criticise the Taliban over the Ghor stoning. He is a prominent member of the National Ulema Council, the country’s highest religious authority, and an adviser on religious affairs to the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani.
Patriarchal interpretations of religious edicts by individuals, who are in positions of power, need to be contained and challenged. While going through assorted cases of immoral practices, such as bacha bazi (paedophilia in the region), one hardly comes across any Hadith or religious edict which categorically quotes any punishment that needs to be meted out to the culprits indulging in such practices. Ironically, it is a woman’s sexuality and its assertion which challenges moralists and fundamentalists the most.
An activist from the region, Azra Nafees Yousafzai, is appalled by the unfortunate event: “Stoning women to death is inhumane and amounts to subjugation of women. Such barbaric acts, whether in the name of religion or culture, must be condemned and their perpetrators brought to justice. They are no longer acceptable in any part of the civilised world in the 21st century.”
The informal state apparatus – whether it is the local clergy, a tribal chief or the jirga which runs parallel to a judicial system – heavily discriminates against women. When an act is carried out in the name of religion, challenging it is deemed as blasphemy and incurs the wrath of many of the fundamentalists who are becoming increasingly vocal, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The perpetrators of such acts justify their actions by quoting the Shariah as practised in the 7th century. It’s high time the moderate Muslims stood up to, and debated the validity of 7th century Shariat, which is being used to provide a cover to these ghastly acts.
Unfortunately, the door of ijtihad has always been closed shut when it concerns the lives of the many women who live in this unfortunate region. There is a dire need to stop the hegemonic cultural construction of sexuality, gender and honour, and reinvent and reconstruct the lives of millions of women in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s April 2016 issue.