August Issue 2009
Hope from the Ashes
Life will never be the same for the women of Swat. After a turbulent stay at the camps set up for the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), they wear a different face. Having weathered the vicissitudes of displacement and dislocation, forced to brave the vacant looks of husbands rendered jobless and the crankiness of children rendered homeless, the women of Swat have, nevertheless, emerged triumphant in their hour of trial. The journey has been difficult, at times even humiliating and frustrating, but they have stood up to the challenge. Now, on their way back home, they are armed with a new-found courage and ambition.
Once content to be masters of their own little homes, these women were forced into a life of captivity in the tent villages set up at the Shah Mansoor and Yar Hussain camps and many others like them. Initially, cultural inhibitions prevented them from stepping out of their tents. But they were forced to swallow their pride and queue up for hours on end, hands outstretched for the free meals the government and donors provided them during the first three weeks after their arrival. Lining up alongside strangers and men who stared at them, spelt psychological trauma for most. Among them were women who had fled from their homes without any male escort because they had either been killed by the army’s shelling, or slaughtered by the Taliban. Others had been forced to leave behind old or handicapped male family members. They suffered from loneliness and depression.
Marjan Bibi, who reached the Shah Mansoor camp on May 29 after walking on foot for three days from her tiny village near Mingora, arrived with her three-year-old daughter. Too shy to step out of her tent, she spent three days without food. A woman in the neighbouring tent found out about her condition and asked her husband to arrange for food. Two months later, Marjan Bibi still did not feel confident enough to step out and continued to rely on help from her neighbours to secure her rations. But she was not the only one. Most of these women had led a sheltered life and never felt the need to talk to strangers, much less request them for help. It came as a severe shock when they had to ask strangers for basic necessities for their survival in a totally new environment. These experience have taken their toll, but on another level they have also given back something to them. And now as these women prepare to return home, they share their experiences.
For Bolan Bibi from Dir, an IDP at the Yar Hussain camp, the most difficult aspect of living in the camps was the lack of privacy. “Although we were spared the deafening sound of mortar shells here, we felt uncomfortable being subjected to the gaze of strangers,” says Bolan Bibi. So acute was the fear of strangers entering their tents — there was no arrangement to ward off such intrusions — that a lot of them suffered from insomnia.
The immense media attention, which may have helped in bringing in aid from donors, amounted to an invasion of privacy for many women IDPs, who were purdah-observing women and had never seen cameras and journalists in their lives. Obsessed with getting a scoop, many media persons sought direct access to the tented villages. “It was very humiliating to be paraded as objects in front of the national and international media and donors,” says Shamin Sultana at Shah Mansoor camp. To add insult to injury, they were questioned again and again about their ordeal and made to share stories that the women would’ve preferred to forget. A Master’s degree holder from Swat’s Mingora University, who wishes to remain anonymous, spoke of her ordeal when she volunteered to teach at an NGO school in the camp. She had agreed to work on the condition that no male would be allowed to enter the premises. However, on the very first day of her job, some mediapersons, along with their cameras, barged into the school, disrupting the class. She resigned that very moment and no amount of cajoling from the camp coordinators could bring her back.
Nonetheless, many of the women did adjust to their new lifestyle. Where once sheer desperation had brought tears to their eyes, the opportunity to learn at the skill development workshops set up by NGOs brought relief of a different kind. Enrolment at such workshops afforded the women not only a chance to step out of their tents but also provided them the opportunity to communicate with fellow IDPs. This was, in itself, a kind of therapy. Coordinator Sadia Iqbal at the Yar Hussain Camp says that while a lot of women came to these classes to learn a skill in order to generate income when they were back home, a lot of them also came in because it gave them a chance to talk about their problems. Cloistered in their tents, with temperatures soaring past 40 degrees, they had silently wished for the sweet cool water of the springs and the juicy fruits of the season that grow wild in the valleys of Swat. They would give anything to return to their homes. But this time round, they were armed with skills which they planned to put to good use. “I’ll stitch clothes for the women in my village. This way I can earn and buy more things for my children,” says Saffiya, who hails from a small village near Mingora.
Adversity has given the displaced women of Swat a new level of confidence and awareness. There is a marked difference in the way they now look at life. Shahnoor, a displaced woman and coordinator and social organiser at the IDP informal school, a collaborative venture of the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund (PPAF) and the Support With Working Solutions (SWWS) at Shah Mansoor, is a woman with new-found poise. “I have learnt to multi-task and can move out of the tent without a chaperone. Previously, I was always looking for my brother or father to accompany me. I am so proud that even after being displaced I am taking home a salary. This is the first time my education has been put to some constructive use,” says Shahnoor. Earlier, Shahnoor was not allowed to work outside her home in Swat. However, forced by economic hardships, her father and brothers relented when they saw the benefits of income generation even if the income was being brought in by the daughter of the family. “I’m so happy here that I don’t want to go back,” Shahnoor laughs, as she gathers the folds of her burqa forward.
Reshama, another IDP from Swat, has convinced her father and brother into letting her join the PPAF-assisted informal school project as a teacher — an honour in itself since organisations were recruiting teachers only after a thorough screening. She discovered her own worth as a person. A change in lifestyle, such as the one weathered by Reshama, translates into a new awareness for many other young women in the camps where they involve themselves in public service. Those who are now working with different organisations have come to realise their potential. They have been exposed to a new lifestyle. They have discovered economic empowerment and it is not something they are going to let go of very easily. In a way, the proxy war the women of Swat have been forced into, has actually helped them. Now, Swat and the adjoining areas will see a change in the female psyche. Swat’s female population may not challenge the culture of the chador and chaar-devari but neither will they remain the nameless, faceless daughters of Eve, which had, thus far, been their destiny.