Six Pakistani women have fuelled international headlines in the past week. Five of them are the hapless victims of the grotesque live burial that took place in rural Balochistan earlier this month, punished for going against tribal tradition and flouting the will of the men for whom they were mere chattel.
The sixth is Dr Aafia Siddiqui, the MIT-trained Pakistani neuroscientist who was recently indicted in a court in New York “for attempting to murder and assault US nationals” while incarcerated at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.
In a grotesque juxtaposition of the global and the local, a short moment in time saw Pakistani women victimised both by the American “war on terror” and a local tribal custom of appalling moral decrepitude.
In the live burial case, five women of the Umrani tribe in rural Balochistan were taken by their male relatives to a remote location. The three minor girls, two of which remain yet nameless, were allegedly beaten and shot by their male relatives before being hurled into a ditch and covered with stones while still alive. The two older women, the mother and aunt of one of the minor girls who protested were shot also. At the end of the grisly affair, five Pakistani women lay dead in the middle of the desolate Balochistan landscape.
The perpetrator of the horrific crime was the brother of a provincial minister and hence was able to evade prosecution until recently; Balochistan being after all a crucial province in the calculus of the Presidential elections.
If the horror of the crime was not appalling enough itself, the ensuing apathy of the Balochistan provincial government, who had until a few days ago still failed to instruct law enforcement officials to probe the case, highlighted the ease with which the act was committed and the women forgotten.
The defiance of the perpetrators who were from the Umrani tribe and their supporters was highlighted by the fact that when the issue was debated in Pakistan’s Senate, Balochistan Senator Sardar Israrullah Zehri defended the crime saying “that it was part of our tribal customs”. The Acting Chairman of the Senate Jan Muhammad Jamali reiterated Sardar Zehri’s objection insisting that people in Islamabad were “ignorant” of tribal customs and should therefore not comment on them.
After news of this exchange hit the presses, a high-level inquiry was finally ordered, and some of the bodies of the victims were exhumed for investigation and DNA tests.
The sixth woman in question, Dr Aafia Siddiqui has received much more consistent attention from both political parties and the general Pakistani public. The MIT-trained neuroscientist and Pakistani national was allegedly handed over to US authorities by Pakistani law enforcement agencies owing to her supposed involvement with Al Qaeda. Dr Siddiqui, after mysteriously disappearing on her way to Karachi airport to catch a flight to Islamabad, was detained for years at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan before finally (and oddly!) being taken to the United States where she was formally indicted later this week.
According to reports, Dr Siddiqui’s background suggests her involvement in the smuggling of blood diamonds to Liberia on secret Al Qaeda missions, a fact discovered after the Al Qaeda operative arranging the missions chose to participate in a United Nations investigation on the matter. Her current indictment, however, is neither on these charges nor on charges of terrorism, but relating to her alleged attack on FBI officials while in detention at Bagram.
Since details of her arrest were finally made public, groups across Pakistan, from the Jama’at-e Islami to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan have protested her arrest and her illegal detention (until her belated indictment) at the hands of US authorities.
The unlawful detention of Dr Siddiqui at Bagram for years, the alleged detention of her eleven-year-old son, and the alleged incidents of torture and coercive interrogation that she has been made to endure are all incidents worthy of condemnation by anyone and everyone who cares for human rights and the rule of law. It is undoubted and uncontroverted that she belongs to a number of disappeared persons who have been illegally handed over to US military forces as part of the ‘war on terror” that continues to exact a debilitating cost from the rule of law in both Pakistan and the United States.
Dr Siddiqui’s case has become a cause célèbre among diverse cadres in Pakistan and also among expatriate Muslim communities abroad. Rallies of support have been organised by these expatriate communities every time she has a court hearing at the District Court in New York. In Pakistan, the Jama’at-e Islami has organised innumerable rallies of support and even raised money for Dr Siddiqui’s family. At one such rally held on August 18 of this year, a large number of Muslim leaders were in attendance and avowed their support and sympathy for Dr Siddiqui’s case.
All six Pakistani women that have made news this week have been undeserving of their fate. It is however disturbing to note that while Dr Siddiqui’s case has garnered vociferous support through rallies and vehement editorials condemning her incarceration, the actual deaths of the five women in Balochistan have failed to initiate the same kind of outcry and mobilisation at the hand of political parties. If it had not been for a female senator raising the issue from a news report in the upper house, it is likely that the issue may not even have been investigated.
With the constant threat of American interference a palpable reality of contemporary Pakistan, is it true that Pakistanis find it easier to condemn those unlawful and gruesome acts committed by a defiant superpower than those committed by Pakistani citizens? Are acts involving the persecution of Pakistani women worthy of unequivocal denunciation and large-scale protests only when the persecution is done at the hands of Americans?
The task of defending Pakistan against American imperialism must not blind us to the ills that exist within us and whose existence simply cannot be blamed on a foreign power. If Pakistani women want to defend against the false “liberation” promised by foreign invaders as a pretext for invasion, they must themselves carry the helm of emancipation and uplift so that acts as heinous and degrading as the live burials do not take place ever again.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at email@example.com
Source: Daily Times, 6/9/2008