Despite elections, fear remains

By Najma Sadeque

Most women welcomed the elections. However, they remain against religious extremism and don’t agree with Taliban’s narrow interpretation of Islam…

When women have their rights, mobility and visibility curtailed under the pretext of religious law, the task of those controlling the citizenry is halved. They are left with only half the population to deal with; women’s needs become a secondary issue and can be easily sidelined to divert state finances for other ends.

Not only that, what men don’t realize is that the responsibility of keeping women ‘in their place’ is shifted onto the men of the family. Thereby, the men who fail in this responsibility, become the target of disapproval of local self-appointed minders of society’s ‘morals’. To save themselves, men become doubly tough with their family females – as much to ensure their safety against the hypocrisies of others.

The arrogant and unreasonable demands of a non-representative and violent element for its own ‘religious reasons’ with no links whatsoever with the general citizenry does not therefore get a warm welcome.

What would have got the public approval would have been if our forces had attended to dealing with low-scale but sustained violence and intimidation and violence by other elements that started years or decades ago, instead of allowing things to fester and grow until too late. Today the various acts of terrorism are often so blurred, it’s sometimes hard to tell who has really committed some of them, since some are not above doing damage to their own people, property and constituencies, and blaming it on others.

Killing is a difficult business. Especially when it is not sanctioned under declared war. Militaries don’t have to hide that they are out to fight. But mercenaries deployed just to cause the worst destruction possible in heavily-populated urban areas – to bomb and maim and kill and bring down buildings – they have to go about their violent task very carefully to avoid detection. So far they seem to have succeeded.

To the rest of the terrorized citizens, those who openly claim to be responsible seem to belong to a particular ethnicity. But are they? Because the same ethnicity constitutes a huge percentage of residents of the major cities, particularly Karachi, who don’t agree with Taliban politics. They are victims too and bombing girls’ schools does not go down well with them.

As a senior police official suggested on a television programme, the perpetrators must have blended in with the local people not to have been noticed at all in the process of planting their devices. This means whoever’s behind it, must have recruited locally. With so much unemployment and discontent brewing, it couldn’t have been too difficult. It’s a frightening thought – to consider that the neighbour with whom you have a nodding acquaintance or the unemployed youth who has nothing better to do except loiter around and therefore a familiar face on the streets, could be something more than that. One has to stop trusting blindly. Instead, as the police official advised, one has to start watching out for unusual or suspicious behaviour.

Most women welcomed the elections. For those who were sorely disappointed in those they had previously voted for, this was a chance to undo their mistake by going for a new face or party. In fact, having to wait five years of far more disillusionment and horror rather than relief, made it too long in the coming. But by the time it came round, huge new problems, some brought on by the last government or two, came on, that once more pushed the basics to a backseat. Adequate food, healthcare, education, shelter, water, sanitation, fuel, transport – and now some newly identified old problems, namely physical security, justice and credit – continue to escape most people.

But they also felt the elections were arranged in haste. The interim government had far more than its fair share to deliver on, too little time to do too much – and not surprisingly, were not able to deliver on all of them. Initially, those who did not meet the criteria were disqualified. But later, political muscle began to work, and people who had the blot of misused money on them or other dubious actions, got through. So, there was no longer a level playing field to compete on, therefore not a fair election to be expected.

No longer do women believe that religious groups try to take over in the misguided conviction that they need to ‘cleanse’ society. Since women are the main focus – some say unhealthy obsession – of religious groups, they also have their share of unsavoury experiences to share in their run-ins with some claiming to be holy.

Religion, women have also begun to realize, is a useful tool and a useful cover for much else. All over the world, history is replete with instances of people motivated only by the drive for power and money or criminal ends, creating religious facades for themselves. Not that all religious groups are the same. The genuine ones don’t tend to get involved in politics; it is in fact anti-religion to be holier-than-thou. Unfortunately, they often get tarred with the same extremist brush.

Tarot card readers and astrologers were increasingly figuring on TV programmes, saying what serious analysts were not expected to, no matter what their gut feelings were, or according to confidential information they could not divulge. That the elections might not take place; or they might be delayed. Perhaps they reflected a widespread public wish?

Like a small entrepreneur who had started well but is now struggling said, “I don’t know who these Taliban are and why they go around killing people. All I know is that they target the parties they don’t like, but ordinary people get hurt. They disrupt businesses; deprive daily-wage workers and other poor. They say they are not going to stop. They are like the corrupt police who are almost an independent power in their own right, and run rackets of their own, and are in league with politicians to stay that way. They won’t leave us in peace. But neither will the mafia or ‘unofficial’ government that gives us no voice and orders us who to vote for. So there is no point in an election if the government doesn’t deal with all three first. This election could also go to waste.”

The general opinion:

“The Taliban say they want Shariat in our country. I don’t understand how it is different from what we already have. I already wear hijab. I never did before, but it’s safer when I travel to work or go to the bazaar. All kinds of twisted men loafing around all the time, as if they had no parents to bring them up to be decent human beings.” (Saleswoman, twenties)

“This (Taliban) business is ridiculously like another General Ziaul Haq, except on a vast, violent scale, bringing Islam to people who are already Muslims. Actually I think it’s just a cover for something more sinister. They are acting on behalf of some other master – some other country or countries out to subjugate and manipulate us. But as long as they are bent on using their money and their power to disrupt our country and our lives, our immediate future is not very bright. We just have to take things as they come and fight it through. It is the fault of those who let them in for other reasons. Now the people are paying for it.” (Academic, fifties)

“Don’t we have something as bad as the Taliban already? We have the police mafia – corrupt, brutal, serving only whoever pays the most, whether government or private person, since the very beginning. Then we have the bhatta mafia and real estate mafia who do the same thing. They’ve been around for 3-4 decades. They’ve all been there under both civilian and military governments. Nobody touches them. Why? Maybe the Taliban can get rid of all of them.” (Retired government officer, sixties)

“Who stands to gain from the Taliban having their way? I don’t think our own religious parties are that extreme or want the Taliban either. They are just wild undisciplined people who can only kill and damage, not think or govern. So it’s something external. It’s a bad sign. It’s the fault of the last government for letting them grow unhindered, and now they are entrenched and out of control.” (Private high school teacher, forties)

“I’m sick and tired of being told that it is my duty to vote. I voted before. It got me nothing except a government that raised prices every week and did nothing for the people. I haven’t had a pay raise in the past three years. My employer says if there’s not enough business, he can’t afford to. It’s a small business and I can’t blame him – he’s had to downsize twice already. I don’t complain any more. But I worry when he worries – that if conditions don’t improve he might have to close down his business altogether. Then I’ll be without a job, and I know I won’t be able to find one soon. So many jobless around. I’ve got more pressing things to worry about besides voting. I have to pinch pennies because I don’t know what may happen tomorrow. The winner won’t give me a new job.” (Office Supervisor, thirties)

“Candidates have promised various things they’ll do for people. But do you know that up to this day no one has ever spoken of female domestic workers or home-based workers? This is a man’s world. They don’t interview people like us on TV. It makes no difference, Taliban or no Taliban. It is as if we don’t exist. We are too unimportant. They don’t think of us.” (Home-based worker. Late twenties)

“Where I live there’s no water. We have to buy it. The roads have been broken for years. — I have to buy new chappals every month or two. I had to stop my growing girls from going to school which is a short walking distance, because of goondas who whistle and misbehave. Daily life is hell for us. The day a candidate guarantees to solve these problems, I will vote for him. And if he carries out his promise and gives us security and our basics, I will vote for him again and again. I don’t care whether he’s from a religious party or not.” (Housewife, early thirties)

Published in the You Magazine – The News 14 May 2013


About denebsumbul

Documentarian, Activist, Journalist, Photographer, Capacity Trainer
This entry was posted in Elections, Extremism, Women in Pakistan and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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