Mariana Baabar, Swat The System, outlookindia.com, April 20, 2009
• Victim of flogging: Safia Bibi
• Punishment: 15 lashes
• President: Zia-ul-Haq
• Victim of flogging: Chand Bibi
• Punishment: 35 lashes
• President: Asif Ali Zardari
Between the flogging of Safia Bibi and Chand Bibi, the world has moved on, defining women’s rights and increasingly anchoring the idea of punishment in the secular-liberal realm. But in these 26 years, Pakistan seems to have changed little—crazed Islamists have subverted the country’s liberal laws to deliver punishment redolent of medieval times.
The horror of this subversion was watched in living rooms all over the country: a video recording of the 35 lashes that rained on Chand Bibi, allegedly a resident of Swat Valley. “Oh God, kill me,” she screamed at every stroke of the whip.
There are conflicting reports about Chand Bibi’s alleged ‘crime’. The Taliban initially justified the punishment, saying she had been living in ‘sin’ with her father-in-law. Days later, a new spin came—she had been punished for letting an electric meter reader inside her home when all alone. The third report claims she was framed, and punished, as a retribution for refusing to marry a Talib. Whatever the reason, ultimately Chand Bibi was found guilty of zina, or sex without legal sanction, and subjected to flogging, a method of punishment that the Taliban claim Islam prescribes. The brazen subversion of state laws prompted legal luminary Asma Jehangir to say, “It’s not only Chand Bibi who has been flogged, but the entire nation of Pakistan.”
As the outcry against the flogging reached a crescendo, the Taliban imparted new twists to the tragic drama. They claimed Chand Bibi wasn’t a resident of Swat, that the flogging had occurred elsewhere but blamed on the Taliban to malign them. The reprehensible episode of Swat reminded people of Safia Bibi’s plight in 1983. This 18-year-old blind girl became pregnant after she was raped. Her pregnancy was then taken as irrefutable proof of zina—and she was awarded three years imprisonment, 15 lashes and a fine. And because Safia was blind and couldn’t identify the rapist, the accused was set free.
It’s no wonder that Chand reminded people of Safia, the political dynamics underlying the two deplorable incidents are very similar. In 1983, General Zia-ul-Haq had empowered the religious zealots to bolster the mullah-military alliance. Emboldened, these zealots sought to impose their perception of justice on the people. Today, reeling under the onslaught of militant Islam, the country’s political elite has chosen to buy peace with the Taliban. This has only encouraged them to openly mock the Pakistani constitution and implement their version of Islam. Analysts fear that should President Asif Ali Zardari sign the Nizam-e-Adl Regulation (which would formally allow the setting up of Islamic courts in Swat), every Pakistani woman runs the risk of becoming a Chand Bibi.
The rise of the Taliban has indeed initiated a fight for Pakistan’s soul. Beyond the issue of women’s rights, the country has been rocked by bomb blasts. Nearly 200 people have died in terror incidents in March alone. Following the attack on the police training camp in Lahore last month, Tehreek-e-Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud threatened, “Inshallah, I promise two strikes a week.”
The flogging of Chand Bibi was the proverbial last straw, and civil society activists took to the streets protesting against the Taliban.
Simultaneously, the Supreme Court took up the matter suo motu. But they can do little. The Taliban challenge can’t be countered without the support of religious parties, which alone can wean away those under the spell of militant Islam.
Depressingly, none of the main Islamist parties expressly condemned the flogging. The reaction of Maulana Fazlur Rehman of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F) was typical, “The NGOs have blown the Chand Bibi video out of proportion. Where were they when the drones were attacking us and killing innocent women and children?” Senator Sajjid Mir of the Jamaat-e Adal doubted the veracity of the video, believing there was a grand conspiracy to malign the Taliban.
The reaction of others ranged from ambivalence to opposition. For instance, the amir (chief) of the Tehreek-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi, Izzat Khan, thought the manner of implementing Chand Bibi’s punishment violated Islamic principles (four witnesses are needed to establish zina.) But he wasn’t opposed to introducing Shariat laws. In contrast, the Sunni Tehreek burnt the effigy of Mehsud. A heartening act that, except that the group’s influence is limited.
Few seem willing to condemn the flogging per se. Swat Taliban spokesperson Muslim Khan, though saying his group wasn’t behind the Chand episode, claimed that both men and women could be whipped under the Shariat. Khan said the Taliban couldn’t be held responsible for the flogging as it had been executed during ‘war time’—that is, before the peace deal was signed between the Taliban and the NWFP government of the Awami National Party (ANP). Under the peace deal, the Taliban have been allowed to establish Islamic courts under the qazi in return for putting an end to the violence.
This is precisely the reason ANP information minister Iftikhar Hussain cites to absolve the Taliban. “This incident took place 45 days before the signing of the peace deal. An NGO activist, Samar Minallah, has released this video as part of a conspiracy.” In agreement, shockingly, was a minister in the Zardari government, Najmuddin Khan: “The release of the video is a conspiracy to sabotage the peace agreement between the provincial government and the Taliban. President Zardari will certainly sign the draft of the Nizam-e-Adl Regulation, immediately after complete peace is restored in Swat.”
Zardari’s party has in the past too turned a blind eye to crimes against women. In education minister Hazar Khan’s constituency, Bijrani, in Sindh, dogs were let loose on a girl who died in the macabre attack. It has been alleged that Hazar Khan was complicit in the crime; he escaped because there isn’t a video to bolster the case. In minister Sardar Isrullah Zehri’s constituency in Balochistan, four women were buried alive. He justified the act saying it was a tribal custom.
The News captured well the depressing situation in Pakistan. “There is no doubt that the party (ANP) of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan is dead; so too is the party of Zulfiqar Bhutto. Instead, we are ruled by fumbling idiots who clearly do not have the backbone to take a stand against the militants and rescue us from the depravity into which we have plunged.” With the army backing the peace deal in Swat, the only hope is that the Supreme Court will pull the country out of this morass.