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Women and militancy

By: Rafia Zakaria

THE attack took place in one of the busiest areas of Istanbul. On Jan 6, 2015 a woman in a niqab blew herself up at a police station in Istanbul’s historic Sultanahmet district, killing one officer and injuring another. So far, it is not known which group was responsible or who the woman was. Witnesses said she spoke in English with a heavy accent but little else is known about her — only that she was one of an increasing number of women joining militant organisations and being used to carry out terror attacks.

On Sunday, Jan 11, 2014 two female suicide bombers from the Nigerian group Boko Haram blew themselves up in a market in north-eastern Nigeria killing at least four people and injuring dozens. This attack came the day after a similar bombing, in which an explosive device was attached to a girl reportedly 10 years old. That attack also killed at least 20 people.

In Pakistan, extremist groups espousing militancy are casting their own seductive shadows on women. In November of last year, a video emerged produced by the female students of the Lal Masjid-run Jamia Hafsa seminary. In it, the women — all completely veiled and unidentifiable — declare their support for the Islamic State group that operates out of Syria and Iraq. The speaker in the video — which was reportedly endorsed by the seminary’s principal, Umme Hassan, wife of the Lal Masjid cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz — speaks entirely in Arabic and expresses support for IS, urging Pakistani militants to join its ranks.

The video attracted little attention in Pakistan when it was first released. In the months since then, however, the actions of Maulana Aziz and that of his wife and followers have once again landed them in the spotlight. Maulana Aziz’s refusal to condemn the Peshawar school massacre has garnered protests from civil society organisations and led to an arrest warrant (yet to be executed) being issued against him. A report by security agencies in January also mentioned the construction of a new branch of the all-female Jamia Hafsa in Mal Pur village in Islamabad, and implied that the land had been obtained illegally.

In Pakistan, groups espousing militancy are casting their own seductive shadows on women.

A closer look at the doings of Jamia Hafsa since its notorious acts of vigilante justice right before the 2007 siege of Lal Masjid reveals even more pressing concerns. Back then, the women of the seminary had been roaming the city abducting women they alleged were involved in illicit activities: they have now begun to exert a more insidious appeal.

In June of this year, a young woman by the name of Uzma Qayyum who had been enrolled in the seminary since 2010 went as usual to her classes at Jamia Binte Ayesha. The day passed and when night fell and she did not return her father, Abdul Qayyum, made his way to the madressah to see what had happened to his daughter. When he reached there he was told that his daughter had left the seminary as usual and in the company of Umme Hassan who, according to Uzma’s father, had been in touch with his daughter since 2013.

The next day, June 17, Uzma’s distraught father went again to Jamia Hafsa to find his 26-year-old daughter. Here, he finally met Umme Hassan and two other female staff members of Jamia Hafsa. His daughter Uzma was also present at the meeting but did not speak to him. Umme Hassan informed him that his daughter had dedicated herself to “the cause of Islam” and would not be leaving Jamia Hafsa. He had never before heard his daughter express any such commitments. In a later conversation with Maulana Aziz on the same day, Abdul Qayyum was told that he could not take his daughter home with him.

The Uzma Qayyum case, which is now before the Supreme Court at the behest of her father who alleges that his daughter is being held at the Jamia Hafsa seminary against her will, raises some interesting and crucial issues. First, it points to the fact that in a society where women are routinely disempowered, insular cultish militant groups can present a stunted path to a superficial empowerment.

In some unconfirmed news reports, it was alleged that Uzma Qayyum was fleeing a marriage to a cousin that had been arranged by her father. It would make sense, in a country like Pakistan where girls have few options, that running away to a religious institution that then exercises its own militant clout to provide a foil against the obligations of family and culture can fast become popular. As the litigation over Uzma Qayyum has progressed for instance, the judge in search of a neutral place to send her ordered her to be sent to Darul Aman (as is done in various cases involving women and their guardians).

The country’s Darul Aman organisations, underfunded and under-protected as they are, cannot compete with the clannish solidarity of a protective militancy presenting itself as religious orthodoxy. A girl who runs and hides in a madressah does not have to bear the stigma of compromised morals otherwise attached to females that flee the nest. While this may or may not have been the case with Uzma Qayyum, its plausibility and likelihood are worthy of consideration.

The attractions of Jamia Hafsa are the result then of a society where women have few instruments to rebel against culture and family without taking up the mantle of religious orthodoxy, perhaps even militancy. If the only choices provided by the country are submerging oneself in the dictates of culture, tradition and family obligation, or to abscond and be considered morally compromised, then militancy and artificially pious underpinnings can provide an attractive third option to those with few of them.

Daily Dawn