By: Shahid Ilyas
Very few women can dare sit on a chair in the presence of the male members of the family. They either have to sit on the dusty floor or keep standing while the patriarch is around
For a very long time now, men, women and children have been under siege in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), living without fundamental rights, basic human dignity and economic means. However, women and children are the worst affected. The percentage of women without literacy, low as it is in the rest of Pakistan, is almost zero in FATA, thanks to the many decades of siege they have lived under. Some sources put it at seven percent, but that is debatable. The refusal of the Pakistani state to effect, through education, a social change in that region is the chief reason for this state of affairs, contrary to state propaganda and some ill-educated people who state that the cause of the backwardness of the people of FATA in general, and its women in particular, is the still prevalent primitive culture and traditions of the people. This logic is put forward by the state and its lackeys to promote their strategic agenda in the Pashtun-inhabited region.
To begin with, all societies were backward and primitive. They achieved a level of economic prosperity and fundamental rights with the intervention of the state. Each society, in the process of such intervention for modernisation, had people who resisted change. However, states were consistent in their efforts to modernise their societies and eventually were successful. To cite just one example, Turkey at the time of the fall of Ottoman rule was a very backward society but it changed and modernised with strong and determined efforts by the state. In Pakistan, it is not that the people of FATA resist change, which they do as every society did in the past. It is the enabling environment that the state provides for backwardness and illiteracy, allowing these evils to continue to haunt FATA. The state has regional strategic projects for which to use the location of FATA, necessitating a backward and illiterate society. Illiterate husbands and brothers cannot be expected to allow their women to pursue education or come out of the four walls of their homes.
Most of the women in FATA never in their lives travel beyond an area of 25 square kilometres from their homes! And, if some rarely do, it is to see a physician for some deadly disease, but that too covered in the traditional tent-like burqa, through which they can hardly see anything beyond two metres. Very few women can dare sit on a chair in the presence of the male members of the family. They either have to sit on the dusty floor or keep standing while the patriarch is around. A majority of women in this area cannot touch their meal before the men are done with it. They can eat the leftovers, if any!
Most women in FATA, by the time they turn 40, have already given birth to at least six children. In most cases, there are more than six, and many have more than 10. All this is thanks to the state’s refusal to educate the tribes. In a majority of cases, the parents and their many children reside under one roof, in a single room, without the provision of a bathroom.
Almost all women in FATA cannot even imagine having any share in inheritance. Sharia law — many like to tell us that the tribes are religiously very conservative — allows for half the amount that the male member inherits to be given to sisters. However, sisters get nothing. Therefore, the situation in FATA has nothing to do with religious conservatism. It has everything to do with the state’s refusal to effect social change through education, the rule of law and economic opportunity.
Due to the state-imposed lack of economic opportunities, at least one male member from the majority of each family in FATA goes to Middle Eastern rich Arab kingdoms for work as labourers in its booming construction industry, where they are highly underpaid by our Arab ‘friends’, and where they have to live in humiliating ramshackle abodes, away from their families for years at a stretch. Their poor children and wives are left alone back home in the mountains of FATA to live without basic facilities of life and without education. Due to the ban on media and human rights groups travelling to this stateless region, the worst ongoing human rights violations continue to haunt the entire population. For, is it not a human rights violation of the wife who lives without a husband for three years at a stretch and more when he is away for work in the Arab kingdoms? How about the human rights of those children who live and grow up without fathers? All this misery is perpetuated by the state for controlling Afghanistan, thus ensuring its own integrity. What use is such integrity when you have to perpetually and forever humiliate an entire population? Is such a state of affairs sustainable at all?
Pakistan’s quest of getting the Durand Line recognised by Afghanistan has made the entire Pashtun inhabited region on the two sides of this line hell on earth in which millions of people live miserably every day. This policy has to change sooner rather than later, for the fire has spilled over to Pakistan itself and beyond. The people of FATA, especially its women and children, have to be given fundamental rights. Women have to be lifted from their degrading existence and FATA must be returned to civilisation.
The writer originates from North Waziristan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on twitter @ilyasakbarkhan