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Who leaked the news about the Kohistani women?

The writer recently completed her three-year term as a member of the National Commission on the Status of Women and as the chairperson of the National Anti-Sexual Harassment Watch Committee.

The recent case of the alleged murder of five women in Kohistan was hot news all around our nation. Our government and civil society joined hands and responded professionally soon after the news broke. The case was partially resolved upon finding out that some of the women were safe … for the moment. Although the story has subsided at the national level, beneath the calm surface it has become more alive than ever before within the local community.

Who leaked the news to the outside world is now the key question. It reminds me of what happened after the death of Osama bin Laden. In the past year, we have learned little from the special investigation about who created the safe haven for Osama but, one after the other, those who gave information about him to the US have been hunted down and punished.

In Kohistan, the local administration officials have made no comment on how this case has unveiled the barbaric customs that continue to persist in the Kohistan society. Rather, they seem obsessed with figuring out how to prevent such stories from getting out in the future. Once the bright light of the national media shifted elsewhere, the local administration started bad mouthing Afzal, the young man who broke the news to the media, by narrating stories of his alleged notorious past.

In addition,the brave young men in Pattan, Dassu and other towns with links to various media outlets have been threatened by the Kohistan DCO and DPO. A local stringer told me, “we were told that if any negative story about killing or humiliating women in Kohistan leaks out, they will issue FIRs against us and our whole families”. When will these ‘officials’ learn that it is the occurrence of inhuman acts, such as the regular killing of women for honour as well as the February murder of Shia pilgrims on their way to Gilgit that brings shame to the people of Kohistan and to our nation, rather than the telling of the story?

At the same time, the local religious leaders are moving against all change agents in their midst. Some of the more enlightened locals with outside exposure represent one of the only possibilities to help the peasants break the chains that bind them to these barbaric traditions. But NGOs are always an easy target. Several fatwas have already been issued but they don’t seem to have been effective. So, the latest move has been to pass a fatwa to separate the NGO workers from the community. This recent fatwa bans anyone from saying funeral prayers over the body of a person who has ever received assistance from an NGO.

How can such a palpable political power play be allowed under the cover of religion? The provincial government has already issued a statement condemning the fatwa. Our president, with his authority over tribal affairs in the country, should take notice of such notorious fatwas and authorise the governors to take action against individuals who are inciting illegal acts.

It is often not the decisions of traditional jirgas that are fanning the flames; it is radical religious groups that are often leading the process. But the cover of tribal customs has long been used by power brokers at many levels of our society to serve various purposes. These practises should not be accepted any longer. We have to stop walking on egg shells when addressing tribal tradition if its actions counter Pakistan’s laws. Based on my discussions over the past month and my earlier work in tribal areas, I believe the people of Kohistan and some of their tribal leaders truly want to find a way to create a better world for their children. Unfortunately, the local administration has become a major hurdle because their inaction empowers the mullahs to keep these people in the Stone Age.

The province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa has restored the old colonial commisionerate system. The Hazara commissioner was involved in missions to locate those five women; let’s see if he can enforce the laws of Pakistan in that area and convict those who unrepentently take the lives of women and anyone else they decide is not deserving of life. If he can’t, what real purpose does a commissioner serve?

Express Tribune