International Women's Day: The war for women’s development in K-P and FATA

Published: March 8, 2012
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Cast out from their families and labelled as western agents, women in the development sector face daily problems.

Cast out from their families and labelled as western agents, women in the development sector face daily problems.

PESHAWAR: 

Zainab Bibi, 31, moved from Malakand Division to Peshawar to work for an NGO, but believes women like her have no future of having a family life.

“Men in our culture do not like women who work. My family criticises me saying I am past my marriage age, but I know if I get married I will not be allowed to work,” she says.

Zainab’s mother gives her daughter her full support – but she also tells her not to visit her home too often. “I go home only once a month because otherwise it will attract too much attention. And when I do, I have to be escorted by a male member of my family who comes and picks me up from Peshawar.”

She said that other women who work in her area have faced similar or worse troubles. “I am inspired by sacrifices made by women like Bibi Fatima,” she says referring to her mentor at Bint-e-Malakand, where Zainab found her first job as a development worker.

“Many women in our areas have been killed or had acid thrown on their faces when they are out in the markets to discourage others from working, but without us women working we cannot progress,” Zainab adds.

Zainab grew up as the only daughter of a single mother in Malakand. And it was an uphill task from day one, from convincing her male family members for her education to stepping out of her village to work in Peshawar. “I am the first degree holder in my family and because of me, other girls in my family and in our area are going for higher education,” she says.

After acquiring her master’s degree from Peshawar University, Zainab started to teach. “I wanted to do more for the women in my community, so I signed up as a volunteer at a local NGO, Bint-e-Malakand, which focuses on female rights in our area.”

Things started to become dangerous. Zainab says that women’s development work in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) province and Fata is viewed as Western conspiracy.

“Most men believe that we are not liberating these women but instigating them to rise against them and feel that we bring vulgarity to their society,” she complains. She also says that many times she has been asked to prove herself to be a devout Muslim by reciting the kalma.

Bibi Fatima, who has been associated with development work in the area for 20 years, says she has received direct threats from the Taliban through mutual acquaintances, and her name was also announced on local FM radios during the Talibanisation era a few years ago. “My own family passed a verdict against me at a jirga when I started to work, and ever since that day they have not talked to me,” she says, solemnly adding that her father, who died when she was young, taught her to fight for her rights from a very young age.

But Bibi Fatima feels that even though women like her and Zainab can fight the limitations set for them by a male-dominated society, she is helpless towards the increasing violence against women in her area. “Those who become too vocal or too active are killed,” she warns and says women’s rights abuses in her area are rampant. “Education is the key to changing mindsets and I am proud to have 600 students, mostly girls, being taught in my schools. These children will grow up to change our social structure.”

Published in The Express Tribune, March 8th, 2012.

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