Oppressed women taint Pakistan’s global image

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By Sarah Iqbal

Targeted at home, often forced to flee, oppressed women give Pakistan a bad name among the world community. They love their country despite its social, political and economic flaws pegged against women in general. But they realize they cannot hope to return.

They do not see an end to the patriarchy and feudal system. Those who have been targets of terrorism know they had better stay away.

On January 31, ‘Gul Makai’, a feature-length film on the youngest Nobel laureate, Malala Yusufzai, was released. Its director is an Indian, Amjad Khan and the main protagonist, Reem Sheikh is also an Indian. It depicts the tale of the young Pakistani girl who was defiant of the militants. She got Taliban’s bullet in the head. She survived and studied in England. Her brief return home was closely-guarded, security-laden and short.

She continues to irritate her compatriots who think she got the Nobel so that the Taliban could be maligned by the West.   

Two days before, on January 29, Aasia Bibi was interviewed by a French journalist in a remote, undisclosed location in Canada. The Christian mother of four was in jail for nine years on charge of blasphemy and was convicted, to death.

But by a miracle in 2018, she was, all of a sudden, found innocent and freed. The highest court of Pakistan gave reasons for its verdict that, when read closely, would make anyone wonder why she was convicted at all by the Lahore High Court, or it was all under duress.

She has described to the French journalist Anne-Isabelle Tollet the hellish conditions in the jail. “My wrists are burning me, it is hard to breathe. My neck […] is encased in an iron collar that the guard can tighten with a huge nut,” she wrote.

“A long chain drags along on the filthy ground. This connects my neck to the handcuffed hand who pulls me like a dog on a lead. Deep within me, a dull fear takes me towards the depths of darkness. A lacerating fear that will never leave me,” she wrote in a book she has co-authored with Tollet.

But Aasia Bibi, who regrets having to flee Pakistan without even bidding farewell to her family left behind in dire stress, wants to return home. “I love my country, but I am in exile for forever,” she said.

She had little choice but to leave Pakistan after religious fanatics sought her head, no matter what the Supreme Court had said. The government, keen to appease the West as new Prime Minister Imran Khan was seeking funds to salvage the economy, analysts say, came down hard on the protesters led by Khadim Husain Rizvi.  

“I became a victim of fanaticism,” she says. In prison, “tears were the only companions in the cell. Even with my freedom, the climate (for Christians) does not seem to have changed and Christians can expect all kinds of reprisals,” she said.

Aasia Bibi has for company in the West, a prominent activist, whose campaigns to empower girls have won her international awards and recognition. She defied a travel ban and fled to the US in September last year.

Gulalai Ismail said she feared for her life after speaking out against sexual violence and disappearances allegedly carried out by the army in north-western Pakistan. After four months on the run, she succeeded in eluding a vast hunt and has turned up in the US, where she is seeking asylum.

Ismail said she never sought to become an overseas dissident but believes there has been a closing of the political space in Pakistan, where the army has remained the dominant power-broker for most of the country’s history. “I never wanted to leave Pakistan. But if I had ended up in prison and tortured for many years, my voice would have been silenced.”

The New York Times carried a report by Bina Shah (April 14, 2019) that sums up Pakistan’s approach to women after the International Women’s Day celebrations. “Thousands of exuberant young feminists staged their second Aurat (women’s) March. Intended to build on the success of a well-received march last year, it was designed to be inclusive, peaceful and raucously joyful. It had women from all walks of life, some in Western clothes, others in full veils, head scarves and burqas. Women from cities and villages. Female health workers and teachers. Trans women and male allies.

“Then came an ugly backlash that still simmers — a sign that the feminists’ goal of breaking the hold of patriarchy is still a long way away. On March 9, perhaps 6,000 women marched peacefully in Karachi, and another 3,000 in Lahore. Smaller groups walked in smaller locales: Peshawar, Quetta, Hyderabad, Faisalabad and Chitral. The marchers made headlines all across Pakistan.

 “But the backlash was immediate, and it grew uglier day by day. First came threats of violence: Anonymous groups of young men searched Instagram for pictures of women who participated in the march and sent them threats of rape and murder. A Muslim cleric declared on television that the march’s slogan — “My body, my choice” — encouraged women to be promiscuous, which allowed men to rape them. Two weeks after the march, a resolution in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly was proposed by a female legislator from a right wing religious party. It condemned the march and its slogans as “shameful” and “obscene.” The resolution was unanimously adopted.