I was a member of the fact-finding team that was sent by the Supreme Court last week to check whether the five women who had been deemed liable for death by a local jirga in Kohistan were alive or not. Their lives had come under threat after a video showing a boy dancing and another in a baseball cap filming and the girls sitting on the floor, heads covered, and merely clapping, was put up on YouTube. Reports began to appear in the national media that their lives were under threat and then it emerged, after two relatives of the men who uploaded the video claimed that the women had been killed.
The Supreme Court took suo motu notice of this and asked the local administration, principally the commissioner of Hazara division and the DPO to bring the girls to Court. They went to the Court expressing their inability to bring the girls citing tribal custom and tradition but said — without any proof — that the girls were alive and well. It was then that the Court decided to send the fact-finding team, comprising four activists (including myself) to the remote area in the Kohistan district via a government helicopter.
The chief secretary of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa asked me to accompany the fact-finding team that was chosen for this purpose. It included Riffat Butt, who is legal adviser of the National Commission on the Status of Women, Shabina Ayaz, member of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s Commission on the Status of Women and Dr Fouzia Saeed. We were told that we had to leave right away with no time even to take essentials with us. We all left within an hour after the court hearing on June 6.
As for the women whose status we were sent to check, I can speak of only one, named Amna (out of four shown in the cell phone video) and confirm that she is certainly alive. We met her and verified her identity. We also met another of the women named Shaheen but we didn’t have her photograph to independently verify her identity and hence had to go by what the local people told us and after she herself confirmed her identity. Maulana Javed, who was the head of the jirga that allegedly gave the verdict, was in fact accompanying the team and to us he denied giving such a fatwa. People in the area also denied that any such incident had ever taken place.
That said, it should be remembered that in the presence of the jirga elders, chances that the local residents we met would give us reliable information were bleak. In my view, a far more detailed investigation is required to establish the fact whether such a fatwa was given or not. Also, as of yet, we do not know what could be the motive behind the leaking of the said video on the internet. This is something that the police should investigate.
What was foremost in my mind was that I wanted to see with my own eyes that the women were alive. This is important because this would have been the clearest evidence of their safety. I did not believe the version being given by the government officials because they usually try and cover up such things, either to hide their own inefficiency, or because of political and other vested interests, such as doing favours for the influential people in the area of their jurisdiction.
We landed in Pattan, one of the four tehsils of the Kohistan district. We were not able to fly to the village where the women were because of bad weather. So we decided to explore whether the local people knew about the video and/or the alleged killing of the women shown in it. What we found was that many local men had the video on their cell phones and the majority of the people thought that these women had in fact been killed. Their perception was clearly based on their prior knowledge of the customs of the area where in such cases families invariably kill both the men and women. The next day at six in the morning we left Dassu (which is a small town on the Karakoram Highway) for the village where the women were supposed to reside. When we landed and asked the villagers about the houses of these women, they pointed towards dwellings that were empty and abandoned. We were told that these families had move up in the mountains, which is a common practice in summer.
After four hours of walking, we reached the place where we met a few men; one of them was the father of Shireen Gul (one of the women) and the other said he was Amna’s uncle. We were told that they would bring the women down because their home was further up the mountain. After a few hours, two women Amna and Shaheen appeared. We showed them still photographs, presumably screen shots of the video on YouTube, which we managed to take with us.
We asked Amna to point out who was who in the photographs. She gave us the names of the other women and also pointed out herself in the photographs. She told us that that the video was made more than a year ago and that it was not at a wedding ceremony. She did not understand Urdu and her uncle translated for us. We asked her about the safety of the other women and she pointed towards the mountains and said that they were alive and living up there. Then we requested her uncle to allow us to make a video of her on the cell phone. Initially, he was reluctant but when we told him that it will be shared only with the Chief Justice of Pakistan and not with the media, we were allowed to film both Amna and Shaheen. After that we took them to a room where we checked whether there was any sign of torture on their bodies but we found none.
We were not able to contact the other three women, since that would have required that we stay there for another two days. In any case, the officials accompanying us said that we must return immediately because of the Supreme Court’s order to return and report back the same day.
As for the two women that we did meet, they could have been brought back with us to Islamabad and before the Supreme Court but for some reason the provincial administration was not willing to do that. Perhaps, the reason is that there is hardly any government writ in that area and local officials operate through tribal elders.
Also, I feel that there is now a very real and serious threat to the lives of these women since the video has been widely circulated in the area. Unfortunately, the killing of men and women in such cases is a routine matter. Before we left, we told the jirga elders that the village will be monitored on a regular basis and if anything happens to these women, they will be held responsible. However, my fear is that once the public attention will be off the case, these women could be harmed, that is if they are not already dead.
Published In The Express Tribune, June 12th, 2012.