- By Amie Ferris-RotmanAmie Ferris-Rotman is Foreign Policy's Moscow correspondent.
Irfan Ali, a tireless campaigner for the rights of minority Shiites in his native Pakistan, volunteered to collect scattered limbs after an explosion tore through the billiard hall of his hometown Quetta in January 2013. The 33-year-old tweeted from the scene. "Was on the way to home nearly escaped bomb blast," he wrote in English. As he helped the injured to ambulances, he wrote in another tweet: "Sad day for diversity." Moments later, a second explosion ripped through the carnage, killing Ali on the spot. Sunni militants Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) claimed responsibility for the twin attacks, which killed at least 80, kick-starting another bloody year for Pakistani Shiites, who bear the brunt of their country’s increasing sectarian violence.
Between January 2012 and June 2013, 77 attacks were launched against Shiites in Pakistan, killing 635. At least 120 more have been killed since July and the bloodletting shows no signs of abating. The widespread violence against Shiites, estimated to make up to 20 percent of Pakistan’s population of 180 million, is unprecedented. Entire Shiite communities feel under siege, and many blame the government for failing to protect them. Human Rights Watch went so far as to say the government’s seeming indifference in hunting down perpetrators could be seen as masking covert backing.
Out of this tense arena of escalating hatred, a small Pakistani Shiite political party rose out of obscurity to victory in May’s general elections.
Majlis Wahdat-e-Muslimeen (MWM), which roughly translates from Urdu as the Assembly of the Unification of Muslims, became the first Shiite party to ever win a seat. Fiercely nationalist, MWM believes sharia law should be implemented across Pakistan and wants to eradicate sectarian violence by providing free education.
Party leaders say its success comes from unlikely advocates: women.
I met Ali’s mother, Saida, several months after her son was killed. She was in a group of mourning mothers at a martyrs’ conference in Rawalpindi, an energetic sprawl of a city adjacent to the capital Islamabad. The women, including a 15-year-old girl who lost her entire family to attacks on Shiites, were being feted by MWM in a large, dimly lit hall decorated with black and green lines from the Koran. Hundreds of men and women sat divided on either side of the hall, sobbing quietly. Some held plates of pungent rose petals on their laps.
Cloaked in black, her eyes creased and dampened with tears, Saida leaned towards me: "I’m a proud mother and have no regrets my son was sacrificed." Like the others, she clutched a framed picture of her slain son. Smiling, he was waving a placard that read ‘Peace we Love.’ "We’re being victimized for following Hussein," she said, referring to the son of Ali, Mohammad’s son-in-law, whom Shiites say is his rightful successor, a belief at the core of the Sunni-Shiite split.
Since that conference in late March, MWM has organized 15 such events across the country, each honoring mothers of the "martyred." In the lead up to the May 11 elections, the party organized scores of protests against what it says is genocide. Women were the "protest pioneers," said MWM’s deputy leader Amin Shahidi. As the government failed to make arrests for Shiite attacks, mothers launched street protests – first in Quetta, where most Shiites come from the ethnic Hazara minority, and later across the country. "Women have this ability to transfer the feelings of struggle, of sacrifice, to their communities," Shahidi told me at his cliff-top home near Islamabad. Crowned by a white turban and elegantly dressed in a diaphanous brown gown over linen, Shahidi charted MWM’s mercurial rise from its creation in 2008 to the present day, where it can command tens of thousands of supporters at rallies. "And it is the women who are getting this many people," he said, almost in surprise at his own statement.
Female branches of MWM were first set up in 2010 to double the party’s impact. "Once we involved women, our messages and goals spread very quickly," said Zahra Najafi, who runs the women’s wing in Karachi, nestled in a concrete Shiite neighborhood covered in MWM graffiti. Her tiny frame engulfed in a black chador, she said 750 women in Sindh province, which includes Karachi, now report to her. Most are involved in door-to-door campaigning and frequently organize sit-ins, demanding justice for Shiite attacks.
This kind of activism among Pakistani Shiites is not new. For many, it begins with the Imamia Students Organization, which was founded in 1972 to prevent encroaching socialism. Another Shiite political party, Islami Tehrik Pakistan, has existed since 1979 but merged with the Pakistan People’s Party for the recent elections.
But not all Shiites agree with MWM’s vociferous approach. "We’re more under attack as a result of these protests," deputy speaker of the Sindh assembly, Shehla Raza, told me in her Karachi home where armed policemen keep 24-hour watch, reflecting increasing fear after eight of her relatives were killed in bomb attacks and targeted shootings.
MWM’s win, however, carried weight. Its candidate Syed Mohammed Raza won a seat – one of 65 – in Baluchistan’s provincial assembly in Quetta. Though numerically tiny – each of Pakistan’s four provinces has its own parliament, in addition to contributing members to the national assembly – "we now have a firm foot in the ground," said Sandleen Rizvi, head of MWM’s Rawalpindi women’s wing.
Though no official gender data exists for individual party votes, Rizvi, whose husband Saeed ran for office in Rawalpindi, believes women made up at least 60 percent of MWM’s vote across the country – at least 15 percent more than the national average. Ejaz Hussain Bahishti, a cleric on MWM’s Islamabad ticket, reckoned women made up to 70 percent of the vote. "They came as a duty to the martyred," he told me.
Despite former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto serving in the position twice, women have played a relatively marginal role in Pakistani politics. But female voter participation is increasing, and women made up 44 percent of the country’s overall vote in May.
Pudgy-cheeked and bubbling with enthusiasm, 37-year-old Rizvi has been hard at work since she organized the martyrs’ conference I attended, setting up MWM units around Rawalpindi where women are taught about campaigning. "We are afraid that a Syria-style situation will arise here with the Shiites," she tells me over ice cream in her home, where miniature replicas of Ali’s sword, the Zulfiqar, hang on her walls. Rizvi’s 10-year-old son and three teenage daughters, their heads wrapped in bright headscarves, surround their mother to listen eagerly. "We must convince all Shiites to unite," she says.
As such, the focus of MWM’s protests has expanded to include "the oppressed" around the world, in a display of solidarity with Shiites in Syria and Egypt. Accusations are rife that Shiite groups such as MWM receive funding from Iran as part of its wider proxy war with Saudi Arabia, which the State Department says supports Sunni extremists. When asked if MWM received financial support from Tehran, Shahidi smiled and pointed to a bowl of pistachios on the table between us. "The only things here from Iran are those nuts!"
Such suspicion, however, is likely to continue as MWM broadens its influence and cements its position as a political platform for Shiites across the country. Earlier this month the party took aim at the central government by calling for anti-American demonstrations, exposing an agenda largely hidden from its election campaign. Its leaders are becoming more brazen, delivering confidence-packed speeches that demand the government do more to protect Shiites. As such, what began as a measured reaction to a minority under siege could become the latest fault line in Pakistan’s identity crisis.
Amie Ferris-Rotman, a John S. Knight journalism fellow at Stanford University, was formerly Reuters’ senior correspondent in Kabul.