“A woman is best either in the house or in the grave” (“Khaza ya po kor xa-da yap o gor-ke”)
The above Pashto proverb demonstrates the place and position of ‘zan’ (woman) in the Pashtun society, especially in the erstwhile FATA (now merged districts of KP). It points to the depressing litanies of the male-oriented code of conduct for women. The proverb also illustrates the position of women and conveys the image of her being a prisoner, a controlled being and a chattel who should be confined to the bounds of indoor chores, work and bear children for the perpetuation of her husband’s ancestry.
No one can imagine or relate to the tribulations of the erst Fata than the wretched tribal population. For they have to bear the brunt of the historical blunders, institutional apathy, bureaucratic callousness and the oppressive burden of the brutal patriarchal society. Every person has a heartbreaking story to tell, but is there and will there be any patient audience?
The mainstreaming of the erstwhile FATA was planned to assure the residents that there will be an end to their sufferings and it will usher in an unprecedented flurry of human and infrastructural developments. May I ask about the tests, results and X-rays reports of these lofty surgeries? Why is there no respite for the tribal woman? Does she have any role – or any say – in the mainstreaming mantra? For she is one of the most oppressed beings. Are there public toilets in tribal areas that cater to the need of the tribal women? Are there safe public spaces for them? Where do they sit when they come to visit their doctors? Don’t they sit in the open, left to the sharp and eagle eyes of prying men?
How many girls’ schools have functional classes in the areas? Do they have any libraries for them? What are the qualifications of their teaching staffs?
We get to a barrage of reports on government hospitals having male staff deficiencies. But has anyone ever talked about the female staff? Breast cancer is a lethal villain across the world. Various NGOS have launched well- coordinated awareness campaign against the disease. What about the tribal areas’ women? The word ‘breast’ is a taboo topic, let alone initiating any discussion on the pressing issue. Who will counter this stigma? How many women die of this fatal disease in the land of these wretched womenfolk? Is there any data available to understand and discuss this issue?
Moreover, stress related issues are an emerging crisis in women of these no-go areas. The usual and traditional approach of the womenfolk to stress-related issues is to seek the services of the available quacks in the shape of clerics and other bogus healers. And these unfortunate womenfolk are further stigmatised by their men for being an added burden on their meagre financial resources. These women then have to give birth in such unimaginably difficult circumstances that slash their chances of robust recovery.
Most of my students are loaded with anger and they find it extremely difficult to manage their anger issues
There is no culture of psychiatry in these areas, for these issues have always been associated with supernatural forces and the best way to deal with them is to seek help from the traditional faith healers. The expression of ‘tension’ is a buzzword and is most casually used for the women who display any such symptoms of stress, anxiety or depression. Now that things are changing and girls are getting educated, they earnestly want to approach professional psychiatrists, but they will have to cover a long, arduous journey to Peshawar. This further depends upon the beliefs and approach of the men in family to allow their sisters, daughters or wives to visit psychiatrists.
Recently, a close relative showed symptoms of severe stress disorders and his father approached me for advice. I recommended him some professional psychiatrists in Peshawar. Instead of listening to my advice, he went to consult another relatively better, informed person who derisively rejected the issue of stress and belittled the significance of tension as a normal occurrence. This is just the tip of the persistent iceberg of ignorance and bigoted tendencies in these parts of our country. Why can’t we have professional psychiatrists in the government hospitals of the merged districts? If we can get doctors for the established hospitals in these areas, what stops our healthcare policymakers to make arrangements for psychiatrists? Is there any such committee of healthcare professionals that have or even plan to pay attention to the issue of post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSDs) in the womenfolk of the merged districts? Do the tribal men, the self-proclaimed guardians of their womenfolk understand the complex nature of abuse, emotional, physical, cultural, social and financial, even domestic? What are the impacts of the convoluted and protracted conflicts on women? Will their children be not at high risk to develop emotional problems?
My teaching experience in one of the merged districts attests to this bitter fact. Most of my students are loaded with anger and they find it extremely difficult to manage their anger issues. Their usual responses are that they have inherited these traits from their psychologically traumatised parents. Do we lack specialist services to address these loaded bombs or there is lack of will to consider these tribal people worth alleviation?
NGOs are not allowed to work in the areas, schools and colleges have no such concept of awareness campaigns, print and electronic platforms are non-existent, access to the social media is dependent on the availability of the PTCL broadband services. 3G and 4G services have been reactivated by the lords of our futures, but how can the women benefit from these facilities?
Similarly, what is the status of the recently established women commissions in the merged districts? What hurdles do they face? Did they manage to make any meaningful intervention to break or even dent the structure of patriarchy? In my humble knowledge of the merged district Kurram, I have not been able to witness any such meeting of these commissions to address any of the pending issue.
I asked one of the elderly women about her interest in the BISP, who was insistent on registering her name for the BISP, despite my repeated attempts at clarifications on my non- BISP status. Her crisp and sharp response bewildered me: emancipation
The members of these commissions are just active on paper and are readily available for publicity stunts on social media platforms and are eager to avail the perks of the women’s rights groups platforms – to build connections and to use the card of being the representatives of these beseeching, hungry tribal womenfolk. Their veneer of feminist solidarity is a hoax. To quote from the acclaimed book Against White Feminism by the renowned Pakistani author Rafia Zakaria, these tribal feminists are, “quite eager to show off their own ‘new women’, modern and forward-looking, as a beacon for all womanhood everywhere.” It is an unfortunately established fact that the tribal women are oppressed by both the atavistic tribal norms and the callous disregard, elitist approach of these so-called ambassadors of the women’s rights cause. To quote Rafia Zakaria, constructing a genuine solidarity includes exposing and excavating the supremacy of ‘desi whiteness’ from within the women’s rights commissions in the merged districts.
In addition to the above discussed areas, there is a dire need of skill development programs for the uneducated yet talented tribal women. The practice of traditional handicrafts needs to be properly institutionalized with the help technical assistance of SRSP, CRA and other professional NGOs. Skills enhancement programs have the potential to generate more income for the womenfolk and can also play an important role in women empowerment through these short term engagements.
A week ago, I had a chance to talk to some elderly ladies at my ancestral home, Awidara, Central Kurram and these ladies mistook me for an official of BISP, for I was carrying my IPad which they mistook for data entry for the BIS programme. I asked one of the elderly women about her interest in the BISP, who was insistent on registering her name for the BISP, despite my repeated attempts at clarifications on my non- BISP status. Her crisp and sharp response bewildered me: emancipation.
I asked her another simple question about the kind of emancipation she would want to achieve with this meager amount of financial assistance. She retorted: free from the daily taunts of my aged husband, my sons and also the added bonus of absolute ease to do whatever you want to do with your own money. So you have financial dependence on your family members was my another question for her. To which she replied with angry face that her forefathers share the blame for this helpless situation. For they didn’t give her any such skills or required education to make things possible for her own good life. This is what financial assistance coupled with skills enhancement programs can do wonders to mitigate the sufferings of these needy womenfolk. But does anyone even know how helpless and needy these womenfolk are?
Lastly, the tribal family system, in this regard, is the site which not only promotes and encourages the culture of gender disparity and tribal women’s marginalisation, but also encourages the perpetration of the ideology of Pashtun male superiority. This disparity can be addressed by modifying the tribal family structure through the promotion of quality education. Also, Pashtunwali modification to comply with international norms needs to be focused on.
It must be mentioned here that violence related to honour is so easily provoked that women are left to the mercy of their callous male guardians. And here as in other cases, it is because of the weak and inadequate response of the state institutions that the tenacious structure of tribal patriarchy is maintained and nurtured.