Pakistan: Women Need Political Space for Peacemaking


As a political activist and president of the women’s wing of the Awami National Party (ANP), Zahira Khattak has been working relentlessly for the empowerment of women in the war-torn North West Frontier Province (NWFP) in Pakistan. She believes that by empowering them, they can contribute more to the peace efforts in the region. "We are holding a peace jirga in the near future in which women from the whole province will be invited to speak on the prevailing situation," Khattak said, referring to the spate of violence in the NWFP, one of Pakistan’s four provinces. Women have also been providing comfort to the bereaved families of the victims of militant attacks in NWFP, she said.

When a suicide blast killed 34 people in Charsadda district in the NWFP in November 2009, the female members of the ANP, including the parliamentarians, offered prayers for the victims to embolden the people, she said. ANP’s women also visit the sites of bomb blasts and houses of the slain victims to encourage their families.

"Men dying in these attacks have mothers, wives, daughters and sisters, who are grieving. We go to their houses to give them psychological, mental and emotional support in these trying times," said Khattak.

The ANP is part of a coalition government in the NWFP alongside the Pakistan People’s Party of Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister who was assassinated in December 2007. It was swept to power in the February 2008 elections, ousting an alliance of Islamic parties.

Following the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, the Taliban government in Afghanistan was toppled, forcing the militant fighters along with al-Qaeda extremists to flee to the porous Pakistan-Afghanistan border, taking sanctuary in the Federally Administered Tribal Area in Pakistan. They later spilled over into the nearby NWFP and started targeting business establishments and security personnel and installations. They also restricted women from venturing out in public without the accompaniment of close family members, and going to schools. In Swat district alone, some 185 girls’ schools have been bombed by the Taliban.

Noting that the violence inflicted on women must be stopped, the former chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has also been working to expand public discourse to include the plight of the women in the province.

She sat down with IPS to share her thoughts on the ongoing efforts to create more space for women in the war-torn NWFP.

Q: The spate of violence in NWFP, including suicide attacks, can easily scare anyone. How are the women coping?

A: Women have always expressed concern over the situation and struggled to live each day fighting off the dire consequences of such incidents. The women of this region have lost a lot as a result of militancy in the region.

Q: You said ANP is organising a peace jirga (or council) where women will have a voice. How do you plan to mobilise them in this peace effort using the ANP platform?

A: The ANP has always played a pivotal role in the efforts to mobilise the women to pursue peace initiatives in the region. An example of this was the peace rally organised by the women’s wing of the ANP in March 2009, which was aimed at promoting peace and harmony in the region while focusing on the role women could play in (achieving this goal).

Q: After the peace council in March 2009, what’s next?

A: The ANP women’s wing is planning to organise a peace conference in March this year, which would also include inputs from women who belong to other political parties. Even a sister of Baitullah Mahsud (chief of the outlawed Tehrik Taliban, who was killed in the U.S. drone attack on Aug. 5, 2009) is welcome to join our campaign against terrorism and contribute to our peace efforts.

Q: How much more can women contribute to the peace efforts in the NWFP?

A: Women can actually do more in establishing peace and stability in this region if they are given their due place within the socio-political structures of society.

An example of this is the female governor [Habiba Sarabi] of the province of Bamyan in Afghanistan, who is working towards establishing reasonable conditions for promoting peace and stability in the province.

Q: That’s interesting, but how come very few women are going into the political arena to vie for electoral seats?

A: The political atmosphere in this country has never been conducive to women’s participation in electoral contests.

In 2008, before the elections, a lot of women, such as Bushra Gohar of ANP, wanted to run for elective posts. But because of the situation obtaining then (mainly owing to the attitude of the mullahs or clerics in the NWFP, who frowned on women participating in politics), it was not possible for them to pursue their political aspirations.

Hopefully, in the coming few years, the situation will change and women will finally be able to join the general elections, thus proving what they are capable of in the political sphere.

Q: How does the ANP ensure that women are accorded the rights due them, including political ones?

A: The constitution of the party has always given its women members equal status. We have used this very effectively, and because of the measures that we have taken (to ensure that they enjoy equal status with men), the number of women parliamentarians who represent the party has increased steadily over the last couple of years.

Q: Are more women awakening to their rights?

A: Yes, and they have done a lot to ensure that their struggles and efforts toward their political and social emancipation do not go to waste. The coming days will prove that.

Ashfaq Yusufzai interviews ZAHIRA KHATTAK, a women’s rights advocate

PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Jan 25, 2010 (IPS)