In traditional societies across Asia, the Middle East and Africa, men keep tight control over women. As men of every great religion have done, they cite their faith and its rules to enforce their control. Among more than 40 million Pashtuns in the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan and Pakistan, very few women have the education, the family support and the real courage required to challenge the men’s version of Islam. Shad Begum is one of them. . . .
BY JAMES RUPERT
Newsday Staff Correspondent
ZIARAT TALASH, Pakistan — In 2000, when President Pervez Musharraf ordered localities to reserve a third of seats on their councils for women, it felt to Shad Begum like progress for women’s rights in the remote Dir Valley of northwest Pakistan. Shad, a social worker for women, won a seat in her district and prepared to push the local government to improve health care and education.
But when the council met, its men forced Shad and the other female members to sit in a side room, behind a locked door, she said. “A loudspeaker and a microphone were supposed to let us speak” to the council session, she said, but “in three years, they never worked.”
When the women wrote up motions for the council to consider and sent them in to the men, “they tore them up,” Shad said, and no statement by the women was recorded in the minutes.
Despite those humiliations, Shad, 27, is running for the equivalent of a county legislature. This time, she said, “whatever it takes, I will make them [the legislators] hear me, and I will hear them.”
Local elections this summer have revived one of Pakistan’s oldest and most bitterly contested issues: Should women be allowed to run for office – or even to vote?
Pakistani women have been formally empowered to vote since 1956. In many cities and towns, especially the relatively cosmopolitan centers of Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, women pursue public careers, including in politics. And, through her family’s political machine and populist appeal, Benazir Bhutto twice was elected prime minister.
But in much of Pakistan, the men who rule their localities – landlords, tribal chiefs and mullahs – resist sharing power with women and cite ethnic traditions and interpretations of Islam as justification. In 2001, and again last month, political party leaders in lower Dir and several other districts announced they would bar women from voting or running in village-level elections.
“If we give women the vote, the situation will be the same as in Lahore, Karachi, Europe or the USA … There will be obscenity and vulgarity and people will be diverted from the real meaning of life,” said Hifz ur-Rahman, a mullah who runs a madrassa, or religious school, a few miles north of Shad’s office. He is an activist of Jamaat ul-Ulama-i-Islami (JUI), a conservative religious party that is part of the ruling coalition here in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province.
In much of the northwest, which is dominated by the Pashtun ethnic group, women can’t campaign. Traditional Pashtun culture keeps women mostly at home and permits them virtually no contact with men outside their immediate family, so husbands and brothers campaign discreetly on their behalf.
In a sign of President Musharraf’s mixed political role, his policies are helping both the women’s rights activists and their opponents. While he increased local government seats reserved for women, his government has allied politically with religious parties, including JUI, that would force women out of public life.
In Dir, a high valley near the border with Afghanistan, the condition of women is dire. “We have only three women doctors for a population of a million people,” Shad said.
The Pashtun culture effectively prevents women from seeing a male doctor. So, “women die from illnesses that can easily be treated,” including tuberculosis and complications from childbirth, Shad said.
In Talash, a section of the lower Dir Valley, 11 boys’ high schools – but only one for girls – serve a population of 100,000, said Haleem Asad, a journalist and former teacher who supports Shad’s campaign. The one school “has no furniture, and 13 teachers for 1,000 students,” he said.
Shad’s family are members of Jamaat-i-Islami, a conservative religious party, but as the family’s first university-educated woman, she says, she gets support from her father, brothers and husband for her campaigns. Shad runs a local group, the Association for Women’s Welfare, which gets funding from Pakistani and international agencies, including Catholic Relief Services.
Non-government organizations like Shad’s are the sharp point of the women’s movement in rural Pakistan. Pashtun culture discourages direct confrontation, so the condemnations don’t mention Shad’s name or her group, she and Asad said.
But any suggestion that a woman’s activities transgress the Pashtun morality code can be deadly. Zubaida Begum, 40, a women’s rights campaigner and council candidate in upper Dir Valley, was shot to death with her 19-year-old daughter last month. They were killed by a male relative after “a man at the mosque taunted him and told him that if he was brave enough, he should stop … [Zubaida] from doing ‘immoral’ deeds,” police chief Muhammad Ayub announced, according to Pakistan’s Daily Times newspaper.
The men of Shad’s family are taunted, too. Men have stoned the family home and a pharmacy run by her brother, Muhammad Shad. Men opposed to women voting “tell me, ‘you want to display your women out in the streets, and the women of our families, too!’ ” he said.
— From Newsday (New York), 23 August 2005. © Newsday 2005.