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Women in the firing line

By: Irfan Husain

THE recent cold-blooded murder of six young women charity workers in Swabi confirms a change in Taliban tactics. While never hesitating in their slaughter of undefended civilians, they now see that killing women volunteers is not just easy, but attains multiple results.

Many females in the NGO sector and government health programmes focus on the care of children and mothers. Their gender gives them access to conservative homes whose doors are closed to male colleagues. By murdering these defenceless women, the Taliban are discouraging others from carrying on this essential work.

By disrupting crucial anti-polio programmes, extremists are putting millions of children’s future at risk. Their excuse is that polio vaccines are in fact drugs to render young Pakistanis incapable of reproducing. This is part of an imaginary anti-Muslim campaign run by the West.

But while ignorant clerics might actually believe this nonsensical fantasy, cynical jihadis have seized upon it to push their larger agenda of dragging the country back to the seventh century. In this worldview, all modern science is anti-Islamic because most of it comes from the West.

These obscurantists are aware that they will be irrelevant in an educated, modern Pakistan. They are therefore bent on stopping progress: in a dysfunctional, backward country, they can hope to grab power as the Taliban did in Afghanistan.

Key to blocking change is to keep women ignorant and subordinate. Many studies in the developing world have confirmed that educated mothers are the most effective catalysts for progress. So for years, clerics have preached that women should stay at home, and only grudgingly agreed that young girls can be educated at segregated schools.

However, extremists deny women even this concession: witness the Taliban’s closure of all girls’ schools when they were in power in Afghanistan. Mimicking this sick mindset, their Pakistani cousins have destroyed hundreds of girls’ schools and colleges.

The attack on young Malala is a part of this vicious misogynist campaign. By shooting a 15-year old girl who was determined to get an education, the Taliban sent out a powerful signal. Delighted with the publicity they received, they went on to target polio-immunisation teams, and then launch this recent attack in Swabi.

One reason the family planning programme in Pakistan has largely been a failure is that clerics have denounced it, and the state has been too feeble to take them on. Now, women — especially in the rural areas — have little or no access to medical advice if they want to limit the size of their families. Small wonder that our population growth rate is so frighteningly high.

The brutalisation of women across Pakistan is evident every day in the form of small newspaper headlines: honour killings, karo kari, and rapes happen every day, and are soon forgotten. In most cases, it is the victim who ends up getting blamed.

Perpetrators are hardly ever arrested, and almost never convicted.

In fact, it is virtually a crime to be born female in Pakistan. Over the years, things have got worse for them. Even though this government has established a commission to formulate recommendations and legislation to improve matters, we have a long way to go before real change becomes visible. And to its credit, a couple of progressive, pro-women laws have also been passed in its tenure.

Nevertheless, there is an environment sustained by the clergy and parts of the media that supports keeping women ‘in their place’. Millions of Pakistani men are subconsciously threatened by the thought of women attaining equality with them.

Many Muslims point to the fact that Islam accorded rights to women that were revolutionary when they were introduced. This is certainly true. But while giving women the right to inherit half the male heir’s share must have sounded generous in the seventh century, today, it seems there is room for debate.

It is this false feeling that women are protected in an Islamic society that fuels so much of the discrimination they face every day. The reality is that most of our attitudes are shaped by tribal customs and social traditions that have nothing to do with Islam. The full veil, for instance, finds no mention in the Holy Book. Only modesty is enjoined on both men and women.

In their efforts to keep women down, clerics have dug up obscure and dubious hadith in order to provide legitimacy to backward customs. We deliberately ignore the fact that in many Muslim countries, women work side by side with men, and those societies have made great progress as a result.

In Iran, a theocracy, family planning is widely practised with state support, and there are more women in universities than men. Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia are other examples where women enjoy equal rights in law and in reality.

The Pakistani clergy, however, is convinced that only their retrogressive interpretation of the faith — especially when it comes to women — is valid. They view their belief system as being threatened by any hint of innovation and change. In fact, the slogan of ‘Islam is in danger’ is raised at the drop of a hat. If one were to believe these fundamentalists, Islam is a fragile religion instead of the robust one being followed by some 1.5 billion believers around the world.

Despite the clear absurdity of many of these backward views, they have come to gain wide currency in Pakistan. Indeed, they inform, or misinform, the public discourse almost totally. Rational thought has been deprived of oxygen, and is now irrelevant. As a result, women and minorities suffer outrageous discrimination — and in recent years, murderous attacks.

The state has failed in its duty to protect its citizens, specially the most vulnerable ones. Above all, it has been incapable of countering the obscurantist message that the clerics have been so successful at disseminating. The school curriculum as well as TV signals is laced with the same poison.

Given the values successive generations of Pakistanis have absorbed, we shouldn’t be surprised by the widespread crimes against women. With good reason, jihadis and clerics see women as the greatest threat to their growing grip on power.
Politicians, judges and generals all seem eager to appease the extremists instead of seeing them as the threat they are.

As long as we don’t confront this grim truth, women will continue to be targeted, and millions of kids will suffer from the Taliban’s wicked campaign.