Stephanie Nolen

For Pakistan's female refugees, a silver lining



The women are frightened. They are furious. They are hot and filthy, hungry and sick with worry for their children. And underneath all that, there is another emotion, one they cannot acknowledge, can barely permit themselves to feel.

They are just the smallest bit gleeful.

Nearly a million Pakistani women have had to flee their homes in the past eight months – most in the past few weeks – as the government intensifies a military operation against Islamist militants it says threaten the state. The women fled the verdant Swat valley, and now they are also trickling out of the tribal territory of Waziristan.

They have gone to relatives, to strangers, and many of them to camps like this one – home for decades to displaced Afghans, it has hastily been repurposed to house internally displaced Pakistanis, with hundreds of dust-caked canvas tents pitched in cheerless rows on baked dirt in vast treeless fields.

The women arrive here with their families, running from Taliban aggression or aerial and ground attacks from the Pakistani military – or both. They have come most of the way on foot – a journey of several days – and brought nothing but a change of clothes, perhaps a few pots and pans.

Such a dislocation is inevitably traumatizing for any refugee population. But for these women, of the Pashtun ethnic group it is a particular shock: they spend their lives in rigorous purdah , living nearly all their days within the walls of their family compound, rarely venturing beyond them, always accompanied by husband or father or son when they do, and sheathed in a vast, enveloping chador or burka.

“We never left home [before],” Nasibu Bakht, 35, plump and freckled, said frankly. “This is very strange.”

She sat in the entryway of her tent: although it was well over 50 degrees inside, rather than 45 outside, she could not go out. But she could sit in the shade just inside the flap, and watch the bustle of the camp – the new arrivals, the water-tankers, the enumerators, the spread of rumours about food or cash being distributed. And strangers. A great many strangers.

“We're seeing a lot of new things here,” she said, pulling her hijab taught around her face as she said it, eyes wide with curiosity above the thick burgundy cotton.

The change is profound.

“These were the powerless women,” mused Mosarrat Qadeem, a Pashtun woman of a different kind, a well-educated and proud feminist. “They are still powerless now – but maybe this can be a blessing in disguise.”

Ms. Qadeem heads a women's organization called Paiman. It is normally a development group, but in recent weeks Ms. Qadeem has rapidly retooled Paiman to care for the displaced – the kind of change happening all over northwestern Pakistan as communities rush to respond to the needs of the two million people, for whom the weak central government is largely unable to provide care.

Ms. Qadeem's organization first sent trucks to pick up those who were fleeing on foot from the fighting – and transported 10,000 in the first few days – but it quickly realized they had nowhere to go and scrounged for resources to open a small camp, now housing 6,000 people outside the town of Mardan.

She was quick to see the implications of displacement for women who lived under pashtunwali – the code of honour, the unwritten laws that govern the ethnic group that spans the Pakistani-Afghan border; she is herself the daughter of a traditional Pashtun leader.

Pashtunwali revolves around the body of women – the honour resides there,” she said; control of women's bodies and behaviour is central. “If someone [outside the family] sees a female relative, it's a dishonour.”

Men among the displaced are outraged at their inability to maintain purdah (the Urdu word means “curtain”) for their women and many list it as their top grievance. “Our women are very careful about their purdah but they had to leave in one thin dupatta [head scarf] and walk 30 or 40 kilometres,” said Mohammed Haider, 22, who fled the city of Mingora with his mother and seven siblings in early June.

And yet in dozens of interviews, displaced women spoke of the lack of food, lack of access to medical care, of the scorching heat (for their villages back in Swat are cool and green) and of the shame of being dependent on handouts. They wished for beds and prayer mats. Not one woman identified the loss of her seclusion as one of her concerns.

Ms. Qadeem and a handful of other Pakistani women's leaders quickly discerned that displacement would be psychologically disturbing for the women, and yet rife with possibility. She started training courses in her camp where women are learning to sew, embroider, cook and package snack foods and raise nursery seedlings, activities they might continue when they go home as small independent sources of income. Agencies such as Unicef and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees talk of the displacement as a rare occasion to reach women with health care services – and girls with education – to which they may have had no access at home, especially for those who live in remote rural areas.

“This will change their outlook on life, and there are two possible scenarios,” said Ms. Qadeem. “They may develop frustrations, there could be a lot of psychosocial problems from that. … But it can be an occasion when they have a role in decision-making. Women's role is definitely going to change after this displacement …When you expose women and they survive they become confident.”

Pashtunwali , and the way women live within it, presents particular challenges in caring for a refugee population, and many critics, from the refugee women themselves to aid groups such as Paiman, charge they are not being met. Latrines at the camp are located far from the tents, for example, yet women are not comfortable walking there alone and must have a male family escort. Families want to put up sheets or mud walls around their houses, so that women can at least step out of the tents, but camp officials either have no supplies or say this is not permitted for security reasons. There are few, if any, female staff working in the field for aid agencies – almost no female medical personnel – which means the women have no one to talk to about their needs, because they will not, cannot, approach a strange man. They cannot talk to a male doctor about their health issues. In the first days of late May when the tides of refugees began to move, Ms. Qadeem, a rare woman in the field, bought tens of thousands of sanitary napkins – women were menstruating, but had no way to ask for what they needed, she said.

Because there are so few females on the staff, and because the women among the displaced are considered precious yet marginal by their own communities, very few women's voices have been heard from Pakistan's war and humanitarian crisis.

“They don't know anything,” said Haider Bakht, a 45-year-old father of seven, helpfully trying to spare a visitor the pointless effort of talking to the women in his extended family. “Those women never leave home. They don't have opinions.”

And at first the women parrot this line – “We stay at home. We are not educated,” Ms. Bakht said. Yet it takes only seconds for their opinions – their fierce opinions, articulate and eloquent, to come spilling out. “The Taliban were forcibly taking young people, saying, ‘If you don't give us your children you will be killed,'“ she said. “Even now some of us have children with them.”

Bakht Begum, in the next tent, is equally angry with the Taliban: “At first we had no problem with them, but then when we wanted to send our daughters to school, they said ‘don't,' and then they blew up the school,” she said.

The women are no happier, however, with the Pakistani government and its military, whom they view as having entirely abdicated their responsibilities by first fleeing at the arrival of the militants and then making a peace deal, relinquishing Swat to them last year.

Parveen Ahmed arrived in the camp only days ago, after spending four weeks amid the fighting at home in Maidan: When the jets came close, she packed her five children into a hole in the yard, an informal bomb shelter. “The Taliban, the army, let them all just go,” she said, throwing her hands in the air with disgust at the violent foolishness of men.

Many of the women from Swat were, by Pashtun standards, leading relatively open lives. The area was a major Pakistani tourist destination, families were comparatively well off, and as many as one-third of girls went to school.

But as the displacement begins in Waziristan, the stakes for women are much higher: In the tribal areas, where the Pakistani state has no presence, women are more secluded, with no contact with the outside world; only an estimated 14 per cent of girls are enrolled in school (fewer actually go) and just 7 per cent of women can read.

The vast majority of the displaced people are not living in camps such as Jalozai, but rather sheltered in the homes of relatives or kind strangers. This presents a different sort of challenge to the way they normally live: while they are not exposed as in a camp, they must spend their days crammed into one small room of the house, so that they are not visible to the male members of the host family, or any one who comes to call. The crowding, boredom and restriction is frustrating, said Kharo Ali, who, with 47 family members, has been given shelter in two rooms by acquaintances in the village of Totali. “We're so crowded and it's really difficult to live like this,” she said; at home they have four bedrooms and a courtyard, and sometimes go next door to see relatives.

Her eldest daughter, Nasibu, 19, and nursing an infant, added something more: “Of course it was frightening at home, when they were bombing – but here, in this new place, this is more frightening,” she said, keeping to the shadows of the women's room. Her five younger sisters, however, stuck to the doorway, craning their heads around, one above the other, drinking in the site of everything new, the glimpses they caught of traffic in the town when men came and went through the door.

“Of course these women, while they are displaced, they will get access to better health care, they will get to see something new,” said Saba Gul Khattak, a Pashtun researcher on gender and peace issues who has been a policy adviser to the government. She predicts, however, that very little will change in the women's lives, when they go home again – that their options will be no more or less than they were before. “But in the end, they will be glad to go back – because home is home.”




commentary by the ottawa mens centre


7/3/2009 10:57:17 PM
How can we donate to the charity of Mosarrat Qadeem?
She is truly a hero, and this is one extremely deserving Charity that Canada needs to fund immediately.
7/3/2009 10:59:38 PM
The Globe and Stephanie Nolen are to be congratulated on this incredible story of courage and suffering that has obviously been begging and deserved to be told for a long time.

7/3/2009 11:07:24 PM
When you expose Women or MEN, and they survive, they become confident.

Stephanie Nolen has written a story that will stand out as one of the best of her career. It is truly one of those remarkable stories told exactly as it needed to be told in a way that brings the reader close to those who are in so dire need of help.

Hopefully, Stephanie Nolen will win an award for this story.

If Stephanie Nolen is really concerned about injustice, she might like to write about the plight of men in the province of Ontario who have the misfortune to end up in Ontario Family Court in front of man hating judges like Justice Allan Sheffield who apply a Male Gender Apartheid "Sharia Law against men that terminates children's rights to have a relationship with their father for no other reason than a pathological personality disorder.

.It's politically correct to talk about the rights of women as against the rights of males, and the women mentioned in Pakistan in this article, truly deserve to be mentioned, as effectively as possible in relation to this article..that being ..said..however, .)

If you want to see the absurdity of politically correct thinking, just watch the thumbs down to this post...for merely mentioning that men have injustices and rights too.

Now, how often is it that you see feminists taking the first stand for mens rights?

The Globe Moderator deleted several posts without cause. The Globe sens-corship machine must have gone stark raving mad or, more likely, simply had a knee-jerk reaction to feminists clicking report abuse. Such is the Politically Correct State of Canada where only the politically correct are permitted to have an opinion.

Here is the post that was deleted by the Globe Sensor
Can anyone find anything wrong with this? Is it too feminist?

How can we donate to the charity of Mosarrat Qadeem?
She is truly a hero, and this is one extremely deserving Charity that Canada needs to fund immediately.