FATA? Is that where tribesmen are cannibals and women are slaves?
In reality, we tribesmen are like all other human beings. We want to live a comfortable and peaceful life.
Over the years, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan (FATA) have been a hot topic of discussion, but for all the wrong reasons.
We, the tribal people, have been termed as 'wild' and are somehow depicted as sub-human. Our women are often at the receiving end of pity because they are believed to be subjected and persecuted. Where to start and where to begin here?
Through this post, I would like to introduce you to the Fata I have spent my entire life in by busting some popular myths about this region.
Myth 1: In Fata,women are to remain illiterate and house-bound
Please do not believe everything you read.
In all fairness, there are problems here due to the law and order situation. Nevertheless, several tribal females do pursue education within this region. Many of my female cousins, including my sister, have graduated from renowned colleges in Fata. This is true for other families in my neighbourhood as well.
There are 13 girls’ degree-colleges, out of which 11 are currently operational. Thousands of female students pursue education in these colleges while roughly 200,000 girls are currently enrolled in government-run primary, middle and secondary schools. These figures do not include the thousands who are enrolled in private schools.
Though there is no co-education at secondary or college level, private schools have co-education at primary and middle school level.
Myth 2: Tribesmen either love militants or drones.
The reality is far from this as an overwhelming majority of us tribesmen hate both militants and drones.
We hate militants because they have ruined the lives of people and pushed the advancement of Fata ten years back. My own tribe has been maintaining a lashkar (armed group of people) against militants.
However, we also hate drones because they give militants the much needed ‘ideological space’ and make petty criminals look like divine soldiers.
Additionally, the collateral damage due to drone attacks means that these drones give birth to more terrorists than they manage to kill – hence the vicious cycle of unending violence goes on.
Myth 3: Fata is the hub of militancy and terrorism.
This is one statement that particularly makes me sad. Think about it; this place is the worst victim of militancy. Since 9/11, we have had thousands of tribesmen killed, thousands of us injured, hundreds of schools destroyed and thousands of homes crushed to the ground.
Almost 40% of the 4.5 million people living in Fata have been internally displaced, with nowhere to go.
I myself have lost a couple of good friends and many acquaintances in this vicious war. Yet, people believe that tribesmen are violent people who kill for the sake of killing.
Though, the hard terrain and tough life may have made us hot-headed, most of us yearn for peaceful lives. My own father, despite his lack of education, never allowed me to carry a weapon in my village. He believed that most enmities are sown because verbal arguments turn into a killing spree in the heat of the moment between people who carelessly carry weapons.
Yes, we have some criminals here, but isn't this true for almost every district in the world?
People here just want peace.
Myth 4: Tribesmen are utterly different from ‘typical human beings’.
What can I say here expect that we tribesmen are not unlike regular people.
We require schools for our children, hospitals for our ill and playgrounds for exertion. We need industrial activity, agriculture and business growth to earn a living. We need roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects to facilitate mobility for us. We need electricity, water, sanitation, waste disposal and other services including social uplift projects. We need telephones, mobile phones and the internet to keep abreast with the latest developments in the world.
Our needs and wants are hardly any different from those of typical ‘human beings’.
Myth 5: Tribesmen are wild; they can never be tamed and they don't want to abide by the laws.
The truth is that we are not ‘wild’ at all.
In fact, when seen in context, we may be more law abiding than several people elsewhere in Pakistan. We wholeheartedly follow unwritten laws called tribal customs. Even in the absence of formal police and judicial authorities, the pre 9/11 crime rate in Fata, excluding deaths in tribal feuds, remained lower than that of any settled areas of the country.
Robberies, thefts and rape cases are rare. This is not to assert that the tribal customs are perfect laws; on the contrary, I feel many are primitive. But my point is that our people have the capacity to abide by and accept laws.
There is only one precondition: the laws must not be 'imposed' on us forcefully. Any law that is implemented through a gradual system of evolution is respected and adhered to. Taming the tribesmen requires some skill and affection.
A Pashto saying explains this perfectly:
‘You can take a Pashtun to hell by the way of love but you can't take him to heaven by the way of force.’
Myth 6: Fata is geographically and culturally a coherent entity, capable of being a separate province.
The reality, however, is that we are anything but a coherent entity.
Geographically Fata is like a chain: every tribal agency is connected to the next like the links in a chain. Bajaur Agency, going up to Chitral, is the northern end of this chain while South Waziristan, bordering Balochistan, is the southern end.
A tribesman from Bajaur or Mohmand will never get to see North or South Waziristan, or Kurram or Orakzai under regular circumstances.
Culturally too, Bajaur and Mohmand are nearer to the Yousafzai culture of Malakand and Peshawar valley while the Waziristanis have similarities with Bannu or North Balochistan. The Orakzai and Kurram tribesmen have a somewhat different cultural setup, similar to Kohat, Hangu or perhaps Tirah and Khyber.
For instance, ‘Attann’, a Pashto folk chorus dance set to the beat of drums, is a symbol of pride in Waziristan or Kurram (Kurramis call it ‘Ghara’) and thus widely practiced. The same ‘Attann’ or any other dance is considered taboo in Bajaur or Mohmand.
Similarly, while Pashto is the language of all Fata tribes, the dialect spoken in Bajaur or Mohmand is altogether different from the one spoken in Waziristan or Kurram/Orakzai.
We may look alike, but we are a diverse province.
Myth 7: Fata is an inaccessible area (Elaqa-e-Gher).
Barring a few regions (Tirah and Shawal amongst them), no area of Fata is inaccessible. Most of the major towns are an hour to two hours drive away from the urban cities of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P).
For example, Miranshah is an hour’s drive from Bannu; Jamrud is less than an hour’s drive from Peshawar. Ghallanai is an hour’s drive from Peshawar; Khar Bajaur is an hour away from Timergara (Dir) and Orakzai’s Kalaya is an hour or so from Kohat. Parachinar and Wana however, are further away from the cities of K-P.
Myth 8: Tribesmen are fiercely religious so they only vote for religious parties in elections.
Except the 2002 elections (when the MMA wave swept the entire Pashtun region from Swat to Quetta), we tribesmen have traditionally elected non-religious ‘electables’ to the assemblies, mostly of feudal or business backgrounds (though all elections before 1997 were based on ‘Lungi’ system and not adult franchise).
In 2008, religious parties could claim only two to three NA seats out of the total 11 in Fata (elections were not held to the 12th seat).
This time, however, the youth vote played a major role in elections and policies. Religion alone has not decided the fate of electoral candidates.
A beard and a shalwar kameez doesn't necessarily mean that person is 'wild' or suppressive towards women. I hope that PTI can enable an environment where all Pakistanis can come and visit us so that they can decide for themselves whether we are like 'typical human beings' or not!
Follow on Shah Zalmay Khan on Twitter @PTI_FATA