Air strikes force Pakistani women to choose sides

Air strikes force Pakistani women to choose sides

By Fariba Nawa
October 17, 2001
Agence France Presse

Islamabad — Ayesha Zia Khan is 22. She does not cover her hair and studies computing at university. Yet she says she would be glad to see allies of the fundamentalist Taliban regime running Pakistan.

Khan is well aware that the Taliban, which has ruled Afghanistan since 1996, has ended public education for Afghan girls and forces women to cover themselves from head to toe.

But she says her Islamic faith is more important than her personal freedom.

“The Taliban are acting exactly as Islam would want them to,” she told AFP in an interview at Islamabad’s co-educational Quaid-e-Azam University, where she studies.

“People call them conservative but they’re doing the right thing. I want to observe Islamic covering and wouldn’t mind being forced to do it. I need the encouragement.”

Khan’s views are among the minority at Quaid-e-Azam.

But since US air strikes on Afghanistan got underway, a growing number of university-educated women are feeling the pressure to choose sides — and many are picking the Taliban, despite its reputation for oppressing women.

Several female students at Quaid-e-Azam and other universities said they did not agree with the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam but they would side with the militia simply because they were Muslims.

“No matter what America says, this is the West’s war against Islam,” said Khan.

While these women were as shocked as anyone by the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, they say bombing the Taliban and killing civilians is not the answer.

“The Taliban are more into suppressing women than running a government. But I feel bad for the way they’re being treated by the rest of the world,” said Mahvash Sami, 20.

The war and Pakistan’s role in it has been the number one topic for discussion among Islamabad’s secular university students.

Some point out that expressions of support for the Taliban have to be seen in the context of ethnic ties. The Taliban and most of their Pakistani supporters come from the Pushtun tribe, whose traditions are generally seen as being more restrictive on women than other groups in Pakistan.

Many students in Islamabad are Punjabi and proud that their women are “outspoken” and “liberated.”

“It depends on the culture. Most people here would never accept such (pro-Taliban) extremist opinions,” said Maria Javed, a business student at Hamdard private university.

Others linked hardline views to poverty and said Islamabad residents are generally too rich to be influenced by the religious groups.

Farzana Bari, the director of women’s studies at Quaid-e-Azam and a leading women’s rights activist, said she was puzzled by upper-middle class women, like Khan, who support the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam.

“They are a tiny minority and I don’t understand but it seems that for them, it’s about status and having a pious reputation,” Bari said.

Overall, most of the women in Bari’s classes want a non-violent solution to the problem of terrorism, she said.

Few women at the secular universities may have expressed any sympathy with the Taliban before US-led strikes in Afghanistan but today, they both dislike and sympathize with the group. Ayesha Khurshid, who graduated from Quaid-e-Azam last year and works as a research associate at an Islamabad think tank, says the air strikes have created an identity crisis for many women.

“Women are struggling with their identities as are all Pakistanis. We feel that we’re Muslims before we’re Pakistanis,” she said. “There’s a polarization between the West and Islam right now and we feel tugged to take sides.”

All of the students agree their biggest fear is the current conflict spreading to the streets of Islamabad, which has so far escaped the kind of violence seen on the streets of other Pakistani cities.

“The thought of what might happen is torturing. I can’t sleep at night. Even the sound of a firecracker affects me,” said Maria Javed.

Rumors abound that Quaid-e-Azam may close if the anti-war protests pose a threat to student safety. Families have cut down on their evening outings, staying home after sunset. Some women have already found their freedom restricted.

“My parents are quite strict now. They don’t allow me to go places at night. I know they’re trying to be careful but it’s hard not knowing what will happen next,” said Rabia Sharif, 22, and a student at the Hamdard business school.

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