Shad Begum teaches women’s rights where that can get you killed

In most traditional societies, including many that still dominate Asia, the Middle East and Africa, men keep tight control over women.  From whichever of the great human religions they come, men often 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, 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. . . .

ZIARAT TALASH, Pakistan (Aug. 8, 2005) -- Shad Begum, left, leads a campaign by women in Pakistan's conservative Dir Valley to enforce laws allowing women to vote and run for office. Her brother, Mohammed, right, has had his home and pharmacy stoned by residents who oppose his sister.  Many in the valley say any public role for women -- even leaving the house to cast a vote -- violates Islam.

Shad Begum at her office in Dir with her brother, Muhammad Shah, one of her biggest supporters. (James Rupert/Newsday)

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.


3 responses to “Shad Begum teaches women’s rights where that can get you killed

  1. jamesrupert

    In late 2007, about two years after writing this article, I drove through the Dir Valley on my way back to Islamabad (from Chitral in far northwest Pakistan). My local colleagues, Pakistani journalists living in Dir whom I rely on for advice when traveling there, told me that violent Islamic militants now had made the area too dangerous for me to re-visit Ziarat Talash. So I didn’t stop, and drove straight through.
    About 18 months after that, Pakistani Taliban guerrillas took control in the Lower Dir Valley, posing a heightened threat to Shad and her work. Later I heard that Shad had been forced to move to Peshawar, the provincial capital for northwestern Pakistan (now renamed the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province). She has continued her work from there, but of course it’s more difficult for her to have an effect than when she was based in the valley.

  2. Abad Ali

    the peoples of Ziarat Tallash are qualified and the respect and love their women. The 93% female are high qualified and they working in diferent Govt departments.

  3. James Rupert

    On International Women’s Day, March 8, 2012, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and First Lady Michelle Obama recognized Shad as one of 10 “Women of Courage” for their work on behalf of women’s rights. On one hand, the award was a strong expression of support for Shad. On the other, the deep unpopularity of the U.S. among many Pakistanis exposed Shad to criticism for accepting the award. Below you can find what the State Department and Clinton had to say about Shad:

    From the State Department:
    Shad Begum is a courageous human rights activist and leader who has changed the political context for women in the extremely conservative district of Dir, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. As founder and executive director of Association for Behavior and Knowledge Transformation (ABKT), Ms. Shad provides political training, microcredit, primary education, and health services to women in the most conservative areas of Pakistan. Ms. Shad not only empowered the women of Dir to vote and run for office, she herself ran and won local seats in the 2001 and 2005 elections against local conservatives who tried to ban female participation. Despite threats, Ms. Shad continues to work out of Peshawar to improve the lives of women in the communities of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

    You can read Clinton’s speech at the award ceremony here:

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