Liberty Under Attack
In Northwest Pakistan
By Juliette Terzieff
01 July , 2003
PESHAWAR, Pakistan --Nighat
Orakzai strode purposefully down the wood-paneled corridors of the Northwest
Frontier Province assembly building situated in the heart of this overcrowded
dusty border town. She was determined to fight legislative moves introduced
by the ruling Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal--a six-party religious alliance--that
threaten basic rights of the population in this impoverished region.
"They are pursuing a
political agenda, using religion as a way to
whip up emotions on issues that, at the end of the day, are not
issues that address the basic needs of the population," she argued
passionately last month at the opening of the current assembly's sixth
sitting since elections last year. "In fact, instead of addressing
basic needs like job creation and education, the result is a deteriorating
Orakzai is one of a dozen
women in the assembly of this impoverished area along the border with
Afghanistan. They are there as a result of an inclusion process instituted
by President Pervez Musharraf last year. The spunky outspoken 43-year
old mother of four doesn't describe herself as a women's rights activist.
For her, that would be too narrow. She says she is a concerned mother
and politician seeking to better living conditions in her home province.
"Women's rights are
human rights," Orakzai fumes, "and with this
government we see the protection of neither. We don't even see the rule
Recently, over a 100 student
activists of the Jamaat-I-Islami, one of the religious alliance's lead
parties, rode around Peshawar with bamboo sticks and ladders tearing
down advertisements for soft drinks and tea products containing the
images of women as part of a loosely defined "anti-obscenity"
campaign. Peshawar police did nothing to stop the mob, which was led
by Jamaat-I-Islami's district chief and former mujahideen commander
Sabir Hussain Awan, setting off fierce argument and protest from the
secular political parties. Religious zealots have also attacked musicians,
cable networks, cinemas and video stores.
Many of the religious alliance's
leaders were schooled in the same madrassas (religious schools) as high-ranking
Afghanistan's former Taliban regime where the Deobandi school of thought
teaches young men that music is sinful and education for girls beyond
8-years-old is a waste of time.
At the assembly's opening
session, Orakzai repeatedly jumped up alongside other opposition members
to call the ruling alliance to task for that recent bout of vigilantism.
She argued that not only is the tearing down of billboards according
to one small groups' rigid interpretations of Islam illegal but that
nowhere in the Koran does it state that a woman's face is "obscene."
"Instead of creating
jobs, they're destroying them," Orakzai said, in a furious mix
of Urdu and broken English.
Similarities to the Taliban
After winning their surprise
landslide victory last October, the
religious alliance outlawed male coaches of female sports teams,
moved to ban male doctors from treating female patients and to
segregate educational institutions.
"It reeks of Taliban-like
influence and I argue there is no place in
Pakistan for that type of religious extremism and must be opposed,"
says Ilyas Bilour, a male assembly member from the more secular oriented
Awami National Party.
Despite opposition parties'
ability to join hands on certain issues,
the religious alliance holds a commanding 74-seat majority in the
122-seat provincial assembly. Only a simple majority is required to
Supporters of the moves argue
the changes are meant to bolster
women's security and access to services.
"Some families do not
wish to send their girls to school with males or to male doctors,"
argues Qazi Hussein Ahmed, national leader of Jamaat-I-Islami. "We
will do everything to ensure women have their proper place in society."
But in a country where more
than 60 percent of women are illiterate, there are precious few qualified
female professionals to step in where males dominate.
"If a man and woman
are standing in an operating theater, they are just doctors trying to
save a life and the patient certainly deserves the best treatment available
from a doctor of either sex," says Orakzai. "Banning treatment
of the opposite sex is going to deprive many people their rightful claim
to health care."
Worst May Yet Be to Come
A month ago the religious
alliance unveiled two new acts designed to bring the province in line
with their beliefs--the Sharia
Implementation Act of 2003 and the Hisba Act.
The vaguely worded Sharia
initiative, which passed unanimously
earlier this month, provides for the enforcement of Koran-based
Islamic law covering the judiciary, education, and the eradication of
social evils. Prepared by a 21-member religious council, the law bans
honor killings and "swara"--the forced marriage of women as
compensation for family feuds or murders--a move applauded by most women
Despite opposition worries
that danger may lie in the ruling clerics interpretation of the law,
all political parties in the provincial assembly voted in favor, lest
the clerics brand them as "bad" Muslims who refute God's law
as given in the Koran. As the results were read out to the gathered
assembly, ruling alliance supporters jumped up screaming "Allahu
Akbar!" (God is great!) and placed chocolates in each other's mouths.
More worrisome for frontier
province women is the Hisba Act--Islamic duty to promote virtue and
prevent vice--slated for debate in the coming weeks. The proposal calls
for the formation of a Hisba force to mete out punishments on the spot.
The new department will be headed by a muhtasib (Islamic law officer)
whose dictates cannot be questioned even by the assembly.
While the new laws under
solid circumstances could serve to
strengthen the position of women in some spheres, most here worry their
implementation will more closely resemble that of the Taliban in neighboring
Afghanistan where the religious police regularly beat women in public
for even the slightest perceived infraction.
"We are not the Taliban,"
insists Jamaat-I-Islami leader Ahmed. "We want to ensure justice
for all members of society, set an example that, God willing, will spread
across the country."
Despite the repeated assurances
of key alliance leaders, human rights campaigners remain unconvinced.
"Issues under discussion
are very woman focused and that is
frightening," says Palwasha Bangash of the Human Rights Commission
of Pakistan. "On the one hand, the federal government says incidents
of violence and militancy are going down, and yet at the same time it
is being institutionalized in the Northwest Frontier Province."
Violence is a common way
to settle disputes, especially in tribal
areas, which dominate most of the region. Retaliatory murders, rape
and banishment are punishments often condoned, and sometimes even prescribed,
by local councils made up of tribal elders.
"Even if the ruling
parties respect the true spirit of the laws,
which remains to be seen, that may not trickle out into the areas
where the situation is most severe," believes Bangash.
Cognizant of growing fear
amongst the general population, opposition parties jointly requested
more time to study the proposals, in order to forge a common position
on amendments before putting the motions up for vote.
"We're going to do what
we can to forward debate on concrete issues that speak to needs of the
common people, forge a government that can achieve results" says
Orakzai. "But at the end of the day, the religious alliance is
in control and what agenda they want, they're likely to get."
(Juliette Terzieff is a freelance
journalist currently based in
Pakistan who has worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek, CNN
International and The London Sunday Times.)