What the Waters Washed Away
The rural, conservative refugees from Pakistan’s floods have not only lost their homes, but also their entire way of life.
CHARSADDA, Pakistan-Zeynat wipes her tears away with the edge of her donated, cream-colored dupatta. Her family was separated shortly after raging floodwaters destroyed her modest, mud-brick home, and it has been well over a month since she last saw her three teenage daughters. For the past week, Zeynat and her mother-in-law have been sharing a tent with her friend and former neighbor, Bach Sultan, and four of Sultan's children, in a makeshift settlement here in Charsadda, in the socially conservative and insurgency-plagued Khyber Pakhtunkwa province bordering Afghanistan.
CHARSADDA, Pakistan-Zeynat wipes her tears away with the edge of her donated, cream-colored dupatta. Her family was separated shortly after raging floodwaters destroyed her modest, mud-brick home, and it has been well over a month since she last saw her three teenage daughters. For the past week, Zeynat and her mother-in-law have been sharing a tent with her friend and former neighbor, Bach Sultan, and four of Sultan’s children, in a makeshift settlement here in Charsadda, in the socially conservative and insurgency-plagued Khyber Pakhtunkwa province bordering Afghanistan.
Zeynat’s tent, which lies just feet away from the dozens of others pitched alongside Charsadda’s Sugar Mill mosque, is sweltering inside. The front and back tent flaps are kept open in the hope of attracting a breeze, but they merely serve to expose the women to the view of passersby. The women say that custom prevents them from idly sitting outside. The camp’s proximity to the mosque means that the building’s bathrooms are available for use by the flood victims. This ensures them a modicum of privacy absent from many other camps, which lack sanitation or rely on outdoor toilets.
Zeynat, who doesn’t know her age but appears to be in her 40s, is a Pashtun woman from the outskirts of this agricultural town. She previously worked as a street hawker, going house to house selling trinkets, jewelry, make up and scarves to other women. "Those little sales I made helped me have everything I needed, thank God," she says. "I had my house, a little gold and things. It was good." She was one of the 21 million Pakistanis that the United Nations says have been affected by the floods that struck Pakistan in July, and have caused billions of dollars in damages. Although the floodwaters have largely receded from the northwest, where they began their destructive course, the emergency continues to unfold in the south’s Sindh province, adding to the ranks of the displaced.
Zeynat, her husband, her mother-in-law, and Sultan’s family had previously been squatting in the Charsadda district hospital’s waiting rooms. They had stayed there for weeks until the management forced them out. Their husbands stay away from the tent, and sleep in the muddy grass outside, in a bid to give the women some privacy.
The women, like many in this camp and in other places where Pashtuns have sought refuge from the waters, have sent their unmarried daughters away to live with relatives whose homes were not washed away by the deluge. "I want them with me but I must protect their honor," Zeynat says through tears. "Here the men and the ladies are mixing, and I don’t like that." Her daughters, she explains, are staying with an uncle in Charsadda.
Sultan nods her covered head in agreement. She has also sent her 14-year-old daughter to live with an aunt. "You see, we are worried about their reputations," she said, "because now there is no Parda anymore."
Parda, which is also spelled purdah, means "curtain" in Urdu, is the traditional practice of shielding women from men to whom they are not related. It is expressed both through physical segregation and through wearing modest, shape-concealing clothing. Purdah is strictly observed by many women in rural areas of Pakistan, including the majority-Pashtun northern belt bordering Afghanistan.
In this region, a family’s honor is often tied to the chastity and obedience of its women — and protecting and defending their honor from verbal and physical harm is part of an ancient code of honor and revenge. But the code is all too often taken to extremes. Barely a week goes by without a story appearing in the Pakistani media about an enraged male — from across Pakistan’s multiethnic spectrum — who has killed a female relative or relatives for some perceived infringement of "honor."
Pakistani newspapers this week, for example, carried a report about a man, identified as Irfan, who shot dead his 22-year-old sister, Saiqa, because she decided to reunite with her former husband rather than remain married to another man her family had chosen for her.
Some of the stories are even more gruesome. Earlier this month, a man named Shaukat Ali drugged his wife and his three daughters, all of whom were under 10 years old, then casually slit their throats after they fell unconscious. He then dragged their bodies into the street and piled them on top of each other, and posted a note on his front door that read: "I am ashamed of my wife who was stubborn and arrogant. My daughters could have turned out like her. I have killed them so that I would not have to suffer the humiliation of their dishonorable actions. I am a man of honor and I will turn myself over to the police for their murder."
For women adhering to purdah, it’s usually easier and safer to simply remain secluded in their homes than risk a similar disaster. However, the floods have made this impossible for many. In some parts of northwestern Pakistan, displacement has forcibly changed conservative social dynamics. Desperation has driven women to jostle with men for limited relief supplies. Unrelated men and women now live in close quarters, the flimsy canvas tents providing little privacy from prying eyes. "Our men are very upset because their ladies are sitting around and other men are looking at us," Sultan says. "It’s very difficult."
"This is an extremely conservative society where you hardly see women outside," says Imtiaz Gul, author of The Most Dangerous Place, a book about Pakistan’s northwestern tribal belt. The longer these displaced citizens are trapped in this situation, Gul warns, the likelihood of frustrations boiling over into violence will only increase.
Akbar Ali, a 27-year-old minivan driver who has been wearing the same black shalwar kameez, a traditional outfit comprised of a long shirt over loose pajama-like trousers, for weeks now, is seething. He has been living in a refugee camp in the town of Nowshera, about 18 miles southeast of Charsadda, for almost a month with his wife and 2-year-old daughter. As relative newcomers to the camp, Ali and his small family missed out on securing covered lodgings like a tent on the grounds of the Government College of Technology, or a space inside the school’s two-story brick structure. The classrooms were already brimming with evacuees, packed four or five families to a room, by the time he arrived.
He has had to make do with a slab of concrete outside the college cafeteria, open to the elements. He is desperately trying to rent a house at any price to get his family indoors, he says, but there’s little left on the market. He has been offered work but turned it down because he did not want to leave his wife alone in the camp. "The men move around the camp. I’m just afraid that one day, if they say something to my wife, it will cause a problem, a fight, because I will have to respond," he avers. "It’s my duty."
For those families that have managed to secure lodging, the situation is not much better. Jan Mohammad, a stocky man with an angular jaw and thick beard, spends most of his day sitting on a straw mat at a safe distance from the tents in this Nowshera camp. His wife, three young daughters, and four sons were lucky enough to secure a tent on the camp’s crowded grounds — but he stays away from that area, opting to sit under a tree near the main road, to avoid making other women uncomfortable.
Mohammad says that the floods washed away more than just his home and possessions. "It’s all gone. Our self-esteem and honor is all gone; the ladies are living outsid
e. There is no more purdah. If I say anything to any man who looks at my wife, they will take me to jail," he says bitterly.
While these changing social conditions present challenges, they also have opened up new opportunities for women and girls. According to Alice Shackelford, country program director of UNIFEM, a U.N. body dedicated to promoting women’s rights and gender equality, there are several community-based organizations operating in northwest Pakistan that are distributing aid only to women, ensuring that they are recognized as important providers for their families rather than passive dependents."With the displaced population there have been opportunities to access children, in particular girls, who before we would not necessarily have been able to access," Shackelford adds.
Still, many girls, like Zeynat and Sultan’s daughters, have been sequestered elsewhere. "They are grown up girls. We can’t have them homeless or sitting here like this," says Zeynat gesturing at the cluster of white canvas tents around her. "I’m really, really looking forward to having my own place, whether it’s a verandah or a little room," she says. "I want my daughters with me."
More from Foreign Policy
No, the World Is Not Multipolar
The idea of emerging power centers is popular but wrong—and could lead to serious policy mistakes.
America Prepares for a Pacific War With China It Doesn’t Want
Embedded with U.S. forces in the Pacific, I saw the dilemmas of deterrence firsthand.
America Can’t Stop China’s Rise
And it should stop trying.
The Morality of Ukraine’s War Is Very Murky
The ethical calculations are less clear than you might think.