Women and children have always been the first casualties of international conflicts and wars, but unfortunately our narratives of war signify everything except these non-combatants. However, they have been dealt as ephemeral entities, which, with passage of time, appear to be invisible and unwanted by-products in every war undertaken by states. Women and children of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) are no differently treated by the state and non-state functionaries in the present conflict and crises.
Even our recent discovery through the haphazard registration process that 70 per cent of those displaced from North Waziristan are women and children has had little impact. A major chunk of the population consists of a marginalised section who were living there all this time when the quasi district was dominated by ‘non-state’, ‘anti-state’ and many other types of actors.
There seems to be little curiosity of what was happening to this population during the last decade, when almost every incident of terrorism ‘universally’ was traced back to this global colony of internationally proclaimed bad guys — it means that no other war-related crimes were committed in this conflict-hit region; there were no rapes, no child abuse, no domestic violence, only terrorism and terrorists? While we can close our eyes to what happened up there in those mountains because ‘what the eyes don’t see the heart doesn’t feel’, and how can we be sincere to ourselves if we really don’t know the facts and don’t feel the fallout — that would be totally unfair. But after the population moved to the comparatively urbanised settled area, the continuous segregation has not ended; women were barred from collecting rations from distribution points because it is considered against ‘honour’. A decree was issued by a jirga of tribal elders who thought of it as inappropriate for women to be standing in the same queue as men. A woman was publicly thrashed when she refused to obey, while the security apparatus on the site stood watching, considering it better to remain uninvolved as it was a matter of tribal honour, which could result in a backlash if someone interfered; although the often fantasised ‘tribal honour’ does not permit touching or slapping someone’s mother, sister, wife and daughter.
The incident orchestrates the apathetic approach of our rulers towards Fata, which has been the same during the colonial era, the times preceding it, and post-partition as well. A crystallisation of this apathy is wonderfully compiled in an exchange of letters between the Punjab government and the Commissioner of Peshawar in June of 1892, at the time when the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) was still being legislated. It’s now part of the colonial archive — ‘that treasure trove of oriental knowledge’ — with its more than often cited references because of its ‘deeper insight’ into cultural semantics, which of course the native was incapable of understanding back then in the colonial era as much as now.
The letter discusses on how to strike a balance between local customs and English law as not to offend ‘good conscience or public policy’. When the commissioner who adjudicated cases related to women did not refer it to the Official Jirga under clause 10 of the FCR. The decrees were claims for women founded on the custom ‘where a woman belongs like a cow or other chattel to her own nearest male relative’. These letters compiled by Robert Nichols in The Frontier Crimes Regulation: A History in Document, which provides introspection into the mindset that framed these regulations to govern the ‘Fanatical North West’. The major concern of the colonial masters was the security paradigm that, unfortunately, determined the course and narratives about the inhabitants of Fata in the colonial era, but things have not moved forward since then.
One can blame the jirga, but the real blame is upon a system which legitimises the use of such mechanisms. Fata is still living in 1901. A real solution to its problems is to pull it back into time. Otherwise, all efforts may prove futile in the future.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 25th, 2014.
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