Invisible, unheard and forgotten: Parachinar’s women

Violence has destroyed families and plunged them into poverty

Invisible, unheard and forgotten: Parachinar’s women

The long-term violence and isolation have worked as pincers on the population of Parachinar if not of the rest of Kurram Agency—and women and children are its worst victims.

“We are just women left. Half the men have been killed,” one woman tells us in one of the many sessions held interviewing them. I travelled to Parachinar with activist Jibran Nasir and Elaj Trust’s Dr Talha Rehman with the specific aim of speaking to the women. Knowing the cultural constraints of the area, I decided I would meet the women and find out their issues. In fact, there was a virtual media blackout on the area, that was not getting the attention it deserved since June 23 when a double bomb blast killed 72 people and injured 250 others. When we entered the beautiful city surrounded by stunning hills I could not see a single woman on the streets, in the market place, at the dharna held by the thousands of men.

Often when a man is killed, his wife marries his brother for economic and social survival. There were indications that there was little choice in the matter. We were told of the legend of a girl who married a man and moved to Peshawar only to see him being killed in a bomb blast there. She returned to Parachinar and remarried but her second husband was also killed in a bomb blast.

We deliberately have more children because they keep dying, say some women. Other say they can't afford to have children and limit their families. Gynaecologist Dr Zainab Ashiq, who has had a clinic here for 26 years, says, however, that the pressure on their fertility is immense. "The mothers-in-law will come and demand the new bride be treated if she is not pregnant two months into the marriage."

I assumed that the women must be unable to attend schools as well but once I visited a few houses, it became very clear and obvious that almost all women were educated and almost each house had a working woman, including teachers, lady health workers and doctors. But of course there was a serious lack of opportunities for them. The major issue for women was the same as that of the men: security.

The women told us that the closure of the road to Parachinar from 2007 to about 2012 was a time of special misery. "Before 2007 we were free to roam around," says Kubra, a lady health worker. "The girls would walk to school. Now we can't even go from one house to the next." So essentially for four years, the women never went anywhere, not even to the bazaar.

"The men say, 'We'll die but you can't go to the bazaar'," says Salma. The violence made it too risky. This isolation was exacerbated by the strict purdah tradition. You can go to the bazaar in a burqa, but then you are not considered to be of good character. There were some bazaar areas demarcated for women, but since the threat of bombings increased these places have generally been off limits. The women manage to comfort each other during daily majalis. Many meet at Topkhana, the imambargah.

“If you put a free bird in a cage for long enough, it won’t leave even if you open the latch,” says Dr Zainab Ashiq.

An entire generation has been inured to violence. Liaquat Hussain was alarmed when his six-year-old daughter asked if he was eating a "mortar goli" when he was taking some tablets.

Maternal health suffered when the road was closed off and in some cases trenches were dug around the city. S. Jauher says many women have died of obgyn complications. Limited mobility has increased their stress levels because they are cooped up at home. There is a general agreement and emphasis that psychological rehabilitation must focus on the women and children. “We have been numb for a decade now,” says Sughra, the mother of 18-year-old Qamar Abbas who was killed June 23. “The bomb blasts have become a routine here.”

There are been no psychological counselling for them, their children and families.

What they need

The women ask for simple things that otherwise should be a given. They want a private park where they can meet and create support systems for themselves. Due to cultural restrictions they have to observe strict purdah. This limits their movement outside the home—even if they wear burqas. Many mothers mentioned that they need child-friendly spaces where they can take their children who have lost their fathers in bomb blasts.
They also want a small women’s market where they can freely buy and sell the things that they need. Many families have been rendered destitute with the loss of their breadwinner, often the only male at home. Many mothers want free education and healthcare for their children because of these situations.  
A few women also specifically mentioned the draconian FCR law and stressed that they believed that doing away with it would help address some of their problems as well.

Asylum the answer

The loss of life in Parachinar families has not just taken place because of bomb blasts. Many men have left to seek asylum as well. One major outcome of the long term violence has been mass departures. One estimate pegs the number of asylum seeking Turis at 6,000. They have fled to Australia, Canada and elsewhere. Many have even met their deaths on these journeys. At one point news came that 170 people were killed when two boats capsized. One man named Mujahid Ali Shah is still missing from 2012 when he went to Australia. Jamal Hussain's brother Raza Hussain went to Melbourne to seek asylum. He died in 2008 in an accident. Many families now live off the remittances they send, which can be about 20,000 rupees or so. Almost every house has lost an asylum seeker. They estimate that 80% of Parachinar's economy is kept afloat with remittances, the rest of the people are government servants and on salaries.

Meena Gabeena runs Meenay Laas (Hand of Love), a non-profit for humanitarian assistance, education, rural development that works for human, women’s and children's rights. It was set up in 2010 in response to the floods in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. @Gabeeno