Building a Just Peace for Women in Pakistan’s Tribal Belt

While the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan made headlines all over the world, one consequence of their return to power has received much less publicity: the resurgence of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in neighboring Pakistan. Also known as the Pakistani Taliban, the TTP has multiplied attacks on Pakistani security forces in recent months, often from Afghan soil.

This renewed militancy could have particularly grave implications for women and girls in Pakistan’s Northwest, bordering Afghanistan. Defying all odds, women in this deeply conservative region have in recent years made major strides in gaining access to justice, and toward political and economic empowerment.  But much as the Taliban authorities are rolling back women’s rights in Afghanistan, the TTP’s re-emergence as a prominent actor in the area could soon jeopardize these hard-won gains.

Women’s activism within the region’s civil society-led social movements contributed to the July 2018 passage of the 25th amendment to the Pakistani constitution, integrating the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The amendment granted residents of the former FATA full constitutional rights and judicial protections, and ended the separate constitutional status of the Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (PATA).

Until 2018, FATA was governed by the 1901 Frontier Crimes Regulation, which denied constitutional, legal, and political rights to its residents. The judiciary was denied jurisdiction over the region, as was the formal police force, and FATA wasn’t represented in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s provincial legislature. Instead, it was ruled by an unaccountable federal bureaucracy in partnership with maliks, the patriarchal elite.

This had direct implications for women’s rights. Rewaj (customary law) prevailed, with jirgas (councils of male tribal elders) sanctioning egregious abuses against women, including swara (giving away women, mainly minors, to settle disputes) and ghag, by which a man forcibly claimed his right to a woman in marriage. Rewaj abuses were also rampant in the neighboring PATA, particularly in rural areas where women faced harsh political and economic restrictions, limiting their ability to work or to contribute to civic life, for example as voters or candidates in elections.

At first, gender oppression in the tribal belt created opportunities for the Pakistani Taliban and other Islamist militant jihadist groups to appeal to women. The militants presented their Islamist agenda as protection against rewaj abuses and a revolutionary alternative to an oppressive tribal elite. That message resounded with many women who donated to and, in rare instances, even joined militant groups.

But women in FATA and PATA ultimately became strong opponents of militancy once the Pakistani Taliban’s own agenda of gender repression became apparent. Some even took up arms to protect their homes or to avenge the murders of male family members. Largely, however, they relied on peaceful means to defy the militants – as Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai did in PATA’s Swat district through her anonymous chronicles of life under their control.

Women flouted militant bans on leaving their homes unaccompanied by a male guardian, circumvented prohibitions on girls’ education by secretly holding classes at teachers’ homes, and continued to work with NGOs to deliver health and other basic services despite restrictions imposed by militants. Women also reduced opportunities for militant jihadist recruitment by moving sons out of conflict zones and even dissuading such recruitment through appeals to Islam.

Punitive military counterinsurgency operations in the mid-2000s led to massive conflict-induced displacement in FATA and PATA, undermining women’s security in the process. Yet, that displacement also broke historic patterns of women’s immobility. More importantly, it led many to question male justifications of those constraints. Access to basic services in camps, no matter how limited, also raised women’s consciousness of the state’s governance failures, while exposure to urban life in Peshawar and other Khyber Pakhtunkhwa cities raised women’s awareness of their rights.

Women in Pakistan’s Northwest went on to become strong advocates of reform, networking among themselves in the region, lobbying with parliament, and participating actively in civil society-led movements, most notably the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement. From early 2018, this movement held mass gatherings to push for constitutional rights and accountability for excesses committed by the military during counterinsurgency operations in the tribal belt. That activism helped yield Pakistan’s 25th constitutional amendment, finally guaranteeing the same rights to communities in the tribal belt as those in the rest of the country.

In theory, women in the former FATA and PATA now have access to formal justice and enjoy the protection of the constitution and national laws, including those that guard their right to property and inheritance. Jirgas are banned, along with rewaj abuses such as swara and ghag, and in May 2019, FATA’s residents voted for the first time to elect members of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s parliament, which now has a quota for tribal women. These are no doubt historic developments. But much more needs to be done to ensure that women in the region have access to justice, security, and political and economic equality, enabling them to play a larger role in civic life.

As the ex-FATA builds its nascent police force, women have important roles to play. For example, they should lead the transition to more gender-sensitive policing, with female officers trained as first responders in gender-based violence cases. Incentives for women’s empowerment in the tribal belt should include quotas in law schools, research and education grants, and financial support. Self-styled liberal parties, such as the Awami National Party and Pakistan Peoples Party, should also encourage female voter turnout and field female candidates from the tribal districts for the provincial and federal parliaments.

Many taboos and norms around gender in Pakistan’s Northwest have already been successfully challenged, but the gains have not yet been consolidated. While the region’s patriarchal elite still poses a major hurdle to women’s political, social, and economic empowerment, the Pakistani Taliban’s resurgence could well become an extra threat to their security and empowerment. Backsliding would not only hurt women but also deprive the region of the full contributions that women can make to peace-building, security, and civic life.

Shehryar Fazli, Consultant. Originally published in The Diplomat

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