Pakistan’s Pashtun Women Are Breaking Silence On Army’s Abuse
Rape protest image used for representational purposes.
Rape protest image used for representational purposes.(Photo: iStock / Altered by The Quint)

Pakistan’s Pashtun Women Are Breaking Silence On Army’s Abuse

A video of a Pakistani woman from North Waziristan surfaced a few days ago, that has now gone viral on Twitter. In the video, the woman claims that Pakistani soldiers have taken away her husband, and are coming to her home with rape-threats.

The video emerged after her young son made an earlier video statement recorded by a local, that the women in his family were being harassed by the Pakistan Army, after his father and another relative were allegedly picked up by the military and had gone “missing”.

The local who made the video was severely beaten up, allegedly by military men. Reports now suggest that the military has let go off the husband of the woman in a bid to do damage control, and to force the woman to remain silent about the abuses she faced at the hands of the Pakistani soldiers.

Pashtun ‘Honour Codes’ & A Culture of Silence

In order to investigate this issue, a delegation of well-known women’s rights political activists also visited the Waziristani woman this weekend, to assess the situation on-ground.

They have unearthed similar claims, but not just from the woman. Activists who visited the area and know about the conflict that has engulfed this region since 9/11, say that many other women came forward, and there are many more such cases of sexual abuse by the Pakistan Army, but the women have been reluctant to speak out, partially due to fear, but also for another reason: the concept of honour in a conservative and patriarchal society.

‘Honour codes’ of Pashtun society dictate that women stay silent about the abuse they face, because if they go public with it, it will bring disrepute to their family and they may be killed to “protect the honour”. Thus, the Pashtun women stay quiet about such harassment, abuse, and in some cases, even rape.

One of the activists who visited North Waziristan is Gulalai Ismail, who runs an award-winning NGO called Aware Girls. Ms Ismail has been quite active in advocating for the rights of Pashtuns, the ethnic community she herself belongs to.

Also Read : Lesser Known Forms of Sexual Abuse You NEED to be Aware of

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The Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement

According to Ismail, the sexual abuse and harassment of women by the Pakistani military in her region has been rampant for many years, but it is the first time that the women are coming forward themselves, and it is mainly because of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement which has given the women the courage to speak up.

The PTM, which is a grassroots movement in Pakistan, has emerged in the wake of the extra judicial killings of men from the tribal belt, and other serious grievances against the Pakistani state. The movement has garnered global attention in recent months.

However, despite the PTM taking up the cause of women and children, the subsequent video of the woman going viral, and the visit of the women’s delegation to the tribal belt, the Pakistani media has remained silent about these serious allegations of soldiers committing sexual abuse in the name of raids. Apparently, journalists have been told by the ISPR, the media-wing of the Pakistan military, to not cover the PTM or anything related to it.

Also Read : ‘She Was Starved for 8 Days,’ Mothers of Kathua Rape Victim Grieve

Reports of Alleged Rape by Pak Army Not Only From Khyber Pakhtunkhwa

In another recent video by a political activist from the Swat Valley (to which Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai belongs), a local claimed that over a thousand of women were abducted by the military while conducting operations in his region. Local women’s rights activists agree with this assessment, but once again, the cases are almost never documented, because the families of such victims do not come forward due to fear of the powerful Pakistan Army, and the ‘honour code’.

But the tribal belt and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa regions are not the first regions where accusations of sexual abuse against men from the Pakistan Army have surfaced.

Earlier, in Balochistan, similar reports had emerged, including the well-known case of Dr Shazia Khalid, who was allegedly raped by a Pakistan Army officer in 2005, in Balochistan. Justice was never served in her case, and instead Dr Khalid had to subsequently leave Pakistan with her family, amidst threats to her life.

Army Must Be Held Accountable; More Women Needed in Security Forces

Does the Pakistan Army use rape as a weapon in conflict zones like Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the tribal belt? It may not be a policy, but it is no secret that dozens of women in East Pakistan were kept in rape camps managed by the Pakistan Army during the civil conflict that led to the division of the country, and the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. At that time too, due to ‘honour codes’, many of these women were ostracised by society in the newly-formed nation of Bangladesh, prompting the leadership of the country to recognise them as ‘Birongonas’, a Bengali term which means ‘war heroine’, in order to stop discrimination against such women.

Once again, similar allegations are surfacing from conflict zones in Pakistani territory. The Pakistani civilian leadership must investigate this and also look into accusations by other communities like the Baloch, and hold soldiers committing such atrocities accountable.

Many of these communities don’t have many male members left in their homes, as the men have gone ‘missing’, mostly due to the conflict. And therefore, it is imperative that the soldiers be held accountable for such abuse, and that a mechanism is built to involve women in the security forces when it comes to dealing with such vulnerable sections of society.

(Taha Siddiqui is an award-winning Pakistani journalist and founder of safenewsrooms.org. He tweets @TahaSSiddiqui. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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