June Issue 2008
Fighting the Odds
For the past three to four years, the Quetta Press Club, in largely conservative Balochistan, has witnessed protests by small groups of women and children. These groups have been protesting against the government’s silence regarding their allegedly missing relatives. While exact numbers have yet to be determined, according to various sources, including the present governor of Balochistan, there are about 2,300 people in the province that are reportedly missing. According to the families and certain political parties, these ‘missing’ persons have been picked up by the intelligence agencies.
Initially, the women who protested against such disappearances made headlines in the media, both locally and internationally, but gradually interest in their protests faded. Even though groups of women are still seen protesting in front of the Quetta Press Club, they are barely given media coverage.
Over the years, the women have realised that a rocket launcher fired on a key government building or bombs planted at strategic places draw more attention to their cause than protesting in front of the press club.
It is perhaps because of this that the women have chalked out a different strategy. Last year, Balochistan saw the emergence of a group called Khawateen-i-Balochistan. The group is an extremely small one and comprises mostly educated women. While the majority of its members are related to the missing persons, that isn’t necessary for membership. In fact, a group leader Shakar Bibi, who is also an advocate, does not have a missing relative nor does another prominent group leader, Nosheen Karmari. According to local sources, “The group also consists of women who have joined in for ideological reasons. They passionately believe in the mission and objectives of the movement and are willing to employ any means to achieve it.” And what exactly is the mission and ideology of the group? “To gain rights for Balochistan, to serve the Baloch and to recover the missing people,” states a member wishing to remain anonymous.
While Khawateen-i-Balochistan’s core membership may be small, ranging between approximately 50-100 women, local analysts caution against dismissing the group. According to a local media contact, “The group may be small but they are well organised and have a lot of supporters as well as sympathisers. And it is these sympathisers and supporters who add to the strength of the existing members.” According to a senior journalist, “Earlier, when the BLA conducted operations in Quetta, the residents immediately moved to the outskirts of the city. Now, support for the BLA movement among the locals and groups like Khawateen-i-Balochistan is such that they don’t need to leave Quetta. They are granted protection within peoples’ homes.” The fact that in a conservative province like Balochistan, women are now giving protection to unknown men in a house devoid of males, is a major sociological change.
“The Khawateen-i-Balochistan,” says Naila Quadri, a member of the Balochistan National Party (BNP), “are a bit disillusioned with the nationalist parties and more so with Ghulam Mohammad Baloch.” The common perception in the region is that Khawateen-i-Balochistan is the female version of Ghulam Mohammad Baloch’s Baloch National Front (BNF). However, Khawateen-i-Balochistan has not aligned itself with any political party and prefers to remain independent.
Khawateen-i-Balochistan came into being during Ghulam Mohammad’s disappearance. However, even after his release, the group has continued to work and is said to be actively associated with the BLA. According to local contacts, last year in August when Dr Hayee Baloch was invited to one of Khawateen-i-Balochistan’s meetings, he was told by the women that he had been unsuccessful in promoting the cause of Balochistan.
Interestingly, on being asked their opinion about Khawateen-i-Balochistan, nationalist party leaders such as Naila Quadri and Dr Ishaque Baloch of the BNP stated that they were not involved with the group but “supported” their movement. When asked what the nature of their support was, whether it was financial or ideological, Naila Quadri stated: “I am a member of a nationalist party that believes in parliamentary politics. Nationalist parties enjoy 60% of the vote bank in Balochistan. However, while I am not a member of Khawateen-i-Balochistan, I do sympathise with their cause.” At one point, a couple of years ago, Naila Quadri had also protested against the disappearance of political activists. Her husband was missing from October 30, 2005 to October 28, 2007. During the two years, Naila maintains, her husband was kept at the “notorious Kuli camp” where he was “tortured physically and also mentally with stories of atrocities committed against his wife and children.” Despite being a victim, Naila claims that she still believes in parliamentary politics.
Although the group has been formed only recently, it has the support of many. Until the ‘missing’ persons are released and the army operation in Balochistan halted, the group and its sympathisers are likely to grow in numbers.