Women's Rights In Pakistan: Looking Past The Flogging

It is a grainy video, but the images are unmistakable. Two men are holding down a woman in a burqa face down, while a third man flogs her backside. Her crime was apparently having been seen with a married man, which were grounds enough to accuse her of having committed adultery (The married man allegedly implicated does not seem to have received any punishment). This is the dictate of the distorted and deeply misogynistic version of Islam that the Taliban advocate. The punishment is possible because the Taliban now rule the Swat valley in Pakistan as the result of a "peace deal" signed a few weeks ago.

It is difficult to watch the video. The girl being flogged seems to be the hapless victim of a brutal and misogynist state that is unafraid to display its use of corporal punishment to the world. Many who watched it play out on TV repeatedly defended Islam, arguing that it does not permit such punishment and that the girl committed no crime. There were conflicting stories. One is that she has been out with a man she was not wed to. Another is that she was approached by a local Taliban leader for marriage. She refused and the spurned suitor sought vindication through trumped-up charges.

Regardless, the impact of the video was beyond the girl's true story. The video was a grim preview of what Pakistan would look like under the rule of the Taliban. Most moderate Pakistanis gasped at the specter of their religion and sensibilities hijacked by a rogue mafia group pretending to be the guardians of Shariah.

Many felt that this would be the death knell for women's rights and freedoms. The very next day, the Labour Party of Pakistan called a protest at the Karachi Press Club. They were joined by Women's Action Forum (a women's rights organization active in Pakistan), Peoples' Resistance and many other groups and individuals. When an activist started a slogan against the U.S. drone bombings of March 15, the host of a TV talk show "Kiran and George" reportedly questioned why everything has to be in pinned in anti-Americanism, and that these matters should not be conflated.

The matters should be conflated for many reasons. This video comes at a time when U.S. drone attacks on the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) continue under Obama's new "Af-Pak" war; and the U.S. government is considering widening their reach. They invisibly, savagely, and indiscriminately kill civilians and raze villages -- while the Taliban militants remain at large. As much as half the population of nearby Swat has fled the region, contributing to the half-million internally displaced persons in Pakistan -- the highest number in Pakistani history and one of the highest in the world.

The women in Swat are certainly under siege now, but they have been under siege for quite some time. Female literacy in Pakistan lags well behind male literacy, and the disparity is even greater in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and FATA. The region is also very poor, and ruled through repressive and colonial writ of state and by local elites.

Swat itself has historically been a magnet for tourists, because of its lush, natural beauty. But the local population has never benefited much from this tourist trade. The on-going war has only exacerbated the sense of deprivation for the local population. And women have borne the biggest brunt of this war - their homes being destroyed - having traveled hundreds of miles with small children to refugee camps or to live with grudging relatives. This was certainly not an isolated incident of savagery against women in Swat, FATA and the rest of Pakistan. The Taliban are not the only culprits when it comes to denying their basic rights and inflicting violence. A few months ago, journalist Nuzhat Baluch wrote about a Balochi woman; Zarina Marri, who was held as a sex slave in a military prison along with other Baloch nationalist leaders. This was as shocking to the conscience as are countless other incidents where the state is complicit in violence against women.

What we need urgently is to re-imagine this conflict from the perspective of the local people. Where is their voice in this discourse? What do Swatis want? Bombs and stiff military action (displacement and death) are never a solution, as they inevitably only empower militant forces like the Taliban. Neither are so-called peace deals that barter away the rights of the politically marginalized. Do Swatis really want to be subject to a peace deal between a repressive state that has failed even in providing basic infrastructure (thus perpetuating class and gender inequity) and a misogynist force that will rule by the gun and mete out speedy, ugly justice? The deal does not address decades of Swati grievances by purportedly giving them autonomy over their matters - when in reality, they are simply being made hostage to a sinister force.

Are Swatis left to make the terrible choice between giving in to the brutality of the Taliban or the brutality of the Pakistani and American bombs? Surely we can recognize that this is a choice that can only have tragic consequences. The video should serve as a grim reminder that we need to stand up for the Swatis and the people of FATA; and against American and Pakistani bombs and against the brutality of the Taliban and against bogus peace deals - and for the women!

The video and reaction to it should lead to rebuilding and reinvigorating the feminist movement in Pakistan and in the United States with a holistic approach, one that is anti imperialist and strongly critical of our respective governments' anti-people actions.

Abira Ashfaq is a lawyer and activist based in Karachi, Pakistan. Sahar Shafqat is an associate professor of political science at St. Mary's College of Maryland. They are both members of Action for a Progressive Pakistan.