Nighat Orakzai

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (WOMENSENEWS)–Nighat Orakzai strode purposefully down the wood-paneled corridors of the Northwest Frontier Province assembly building situated in the heart of this overcrowded dusty border town. She was determined to fight legislative moves introduced by the ruling Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal–a six-party religious alliance–that threaten basic rights of the population in this impoverished region.

“They are pursuing a political agenda, using religion as a way to whip up emotions on issues that, at the end of the day, are not issues that address the basic needs of the population,” she argued passionately last month at the opening of the current assembly’s sixth sitting since elections last year. “In fact, instead of addressing basic needs like job creation and education, the result is a deteriorating situation.”

Orakzai is one of a dozen women in the assembly of this impoverished area along the border with Afghanistan. They are there as a result of an inclusion process instituted by President Pervez Musharraf last year. The spunky outspoken 43-year old mother of four doesn’t describe herself as a women’s rights activist. For her, that would be too narrow. She says she is a concerned mother and politician seeking to better living conditions in her home province.

“Women’s rights are human rights,” Orakzai fumes, “and with this government we see the protection of neither. We don’t even see the rule of law.”

Recently, over a 100 student activists of the Jamaat-I-Islami, one of the religious alliance’s lead parties, rode around Peshawar with bamboo sticks and ladders tearing down advertisements for soft drinks and tea products containing the images of women as part of a loosely defined “anti-obscenity” campaign. Peshawar police did nothing to stop the mob, which was led by Jamaat-I-Islami’s district chief and former mujahideen commander Sabir Hussain Awan, setting off fierce argument and protest from the secular political parties. Religious zealots have also attacked musicians, cable networks, cinemas and video stores.

Many of the religious alliance’s leaders were schooled in the same madrassas (religious schools) as high-ranking members of Afghanistan’s former Taliban regime where the Deobandi school of thought teaches young men that music is sinful and education for girls beyond 8-years-old is a waste of time.

At the assembly’s opening session, Orakzai repeatedly jumped up alongside other opposition members to call the ruling alliance to task for that recent bout of vigilantism. She argued that not only is the tearing down of billboards according to one small groups’ rigid interpretations of Islam illegal but that nowhere in the Koran does it state that a woman’s face is “obscene.”

“Instead of creating jobs, they’re destroying them,” Orakzai said, in a furious mix of Urdu and broken English.

Similarities to the Taliban

After winning their surprise landslide victory last October, the religious alliance outlawed male coaches of female sports teams, moved to ban male doctors from treating female patients and to segregate educational institutions.

“It reeks of Taliban-like influence and I argue there is no place in Pakistan for that type of religious extremism and must be opposed,” says Ilyas Bilour, a male assembly member from the more secular oriented Awami National Party.

Despite opposition parties’ ability to join hands on certain issues, the religious alliance holds a commanding 74-seat majority in the 122-seat provincial assembly. Only a simple majority is required to pass laws.

Supporters of the moves argue the changes are meant to bolster women’s security and access to services.

“Some families do not wish to send their girls to school with males or to male doctors,” argues Qazi Hussein Ahmed, national leader of Jamaat-I-Islami. “We will do everything to ensure women have their proper place in society.”

But in a country where more than 60 percent of women are illiterate, there are precious few qualified female professionals to step in where males dominate.

“If a man and woman are standing in an operating theater, they are just doctors trying to save a life and the patient certainly deserves the best treatment available from a doctor of either sex,” says Orakzai. “Banning treatment of the opposite sex is going to deprive many people their rightful claim to health care.”

Worst May Yet Be to Come

A month ago the religious alliance unveiled two new acts designed to bring the province in line with their beliefs–the Sharia Implementation Act of 2003 and the Hisba Act.

The vaguely worded Sharia initiative, which passed unanimously earlier this month, provides for the enforcement of Koran-based Islamic law covering the judiciary, education, and the eradication of social evils. Prepared by a 21-member religious council, the law bans honor killings and “swara”–the forced marriage of women as compensation for family feuds or murders–a move applauded by most women here.

Despite opposition worries that danger may lie in the ruling clerics interpretation of the law, all political parties in the provincial assembly voted in favor, lest the clerics brand them as “bad” Muslims who refute God’s law as given in the Koran. As the results were read out to the gathered assembly, ruling alliance supporters jumped up screaming “Allahu Akbar!” (God is great!) and placed chocolates in each other’s mouths.

More worrisome for frontier province women is the Hisba Act–Islamic duty to promote virtue and prevent vice–slated for debate in the coming weeks. The proposal calls for the formation of a Hisba force to mete out punishments on the spot. The new department will be headed by a muhtasib (Islamic law officer) whose dictates cannot be questioned even by the assembly.

While the new laws under solid circumstances could serve to strengthen the position of women in some spheres, most here worry their implementation will more closely resemble that of the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan where the religious police regularly beat women in public for even the slightest perceived infraction.

“We are not the Taliban,” insists Jamaat-I-Islami leader Ahmed. “We want to ensure justice for all members of society, set an example that, God willing, will spread across the country.”

Despite the repeated assurances of key alliance leaders, human rights campaigners remain unconvinced.

“Issues under discussion are very woman focused and that is frightening,” says Palwasha Bangash of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. “On the one hand, the federal government says incidents of violence and militancy are going down, and yet at the same time it is being institutionalized in the Northwest Frontier Province.”

Violence is a common way to settle disputes, especially in tribal areas, which dominate most of the region. Retaliatory murders, rape and banishment are punishments often condoned, and sometimes even prescribed, by local councils made up of tribal elders.

“Even if the ruling parties respect the true spirit of the laws, which remains to be seen, that may not trickle out into the areas where the situation is most severe,” believes Bangash.

Cognizant of growing fear amongst the general population, opposition parties jointly requested more time to study the proposals, in order to forge a common position on amendments before putting the motions up for vote.

“We’re going to do what we can to forward debate on concrete issues that speak to needs of the common people, forge a government that can achieve results” says Orakzai. “But at the end of the day, the religious alliance is in control and what agenda they want, they’re likely to get.”

Juliette Terzieff is a freelance journalist currently based in Pakistan who has worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek, CNN International and The London Sunday Times.

For more information:

National Commission on the Status of Women
(Government of Pakistan):

Amnesty International–Women’s Human Rights
“Pakistan: Violence against Women in the Name of Honor”:

Human Rights Watch–World Report 2003