The South Asia Channel

Ten women who shook Pakistan

The Taliban’s shooting last Tuesday of a 14-year old girl, Malala Yousafzai, a tireless campaigner for girls’ access to education, has plunged the entire Pakistani nation into a state of disbelief. Many in Pakistan and around the world have lauded her bravery, and some have questioned whether this incident is going change Pakistan, or is ...


The Taliban’s shooting last Tuesday of a 14-year old girl, Malala Yousafzai, a tireless campaigner for girls’ access to education, has plunged the entire Pakistani nation into a state of disbelief. Many in Pakistan and around the world have lauded her bravery, and some have questioned whether this incident is going change Pakistan, or is just another example of the ignored militant threat. The assault on Malala raises questions about the safety of female activists all over Pakistan.

In this article, we discuss ten major incidents over the past decade, all involving women, which shook the foundations of Pakistani society and increased public expectations for improved conditions for Pakistani women. These tragedies involve many different forms of violence against women, along with lax official responses that encourage a culture of impunity among the perpetrators of the assaults.

Malala Yousafzai: Taliban gunmen singled out Malala on October 9, 2012 in a school van full of girls returning home for the day. They shot her in the neck and head.  She had infuriated the Taliban with her blog posts for the BBC that exposed the insurgent group’s ban on girls’ education in her native Swat, in the northwest of Pakistan. The Taliban consider girls’ education to be un-Islamic and they began to destroy schools as a tactic to stop education for girls. According to TIME Magazine, they destroyed 473 schools between 2007 and 2009. The destruction and closure of local schools compelled Malala to speak up against the Taliban’s actions. She met personally with top officials, including senior U.S. diplomats, to request them to help Pakistani girls receive uninterrupted education.  The Taliban have vowed to kill Malala if she survives, and she currently remains under treatment in a hospital in England. Malala has emerged as a child hero epitomizing resistance against the Taliban.

Ramsha Masi is a teenaged Pakistani Christian girl, who according to some reports suffers from Down syndrome, and who was detained by authorities in Islamabad on blasphemy charges in August 2012 for allegedly burning pages of the Quran. She could face the death sentence if charges against her are proven. Ramsha’s case spotlighted the vulnerability of Pakistan’s religious minorities, who can easily be subjugated by Muslim clergymen under the controversial blasphemy law. It turned out that a Muslim cleric had actually planted evidence against the Christian girl but he was eventually granted bail by a court. Ramsha’s physical safety still remains a major concern.

Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, a filmmaker, made her country proud in 2012 by becoming the first Pakistani to win an Oscar award. Saving Face, her award-winning movie, however, stunned the world as it courageously exposed the despicable phenomenon of acid attacks on women. The movie instilled courage among the victims of acid assaults and drew international attention toward the unknown ferocious practice employed by abusive husbands, angry fathers, and Taliban militants alike.

Rankil Kumari: The case of this 17-year old Hindu girl has helped to draw public attention to another disquieting practice: Forceful conversion of Hindu girls into Islam, and their subsequent forced marriages with Muslim boys. On February 24, 2012, an influential Muslim politician kidnapped Ms. Kumari from her residence in Sindh province. When the girl resurfaced after a few days, she, apparently concerned about personal safety, said she had ‘willingly’ embraced Islam and married a Muslim man. The Hindus, on their part, say young girls from their minority community are wholly unsafe in Pakistan, where each month at least 20 to 25 girls are forcefully converted to Islam and compelled to marry Muslims. According to one estimate, 300 Hindu girls are forcefully converted in Pakistan each year.

Asia Bibi is another Christian woman who became a victim of the blasphemy law. In November 2010, a court in Punjab handed her a death sentence for committing blasphemy against Islam. If the superior courts uphold the judgment, she will become Pakistan’s first woman to be killed under the blasphemy law.

Ms. Bibi’s case also indicates the improbability of abolishing or reforming the blasphemy laws. For example, Salmaan Taseer, the Punjab governor, was shot dead by his own security guard when he publicly spoke in support of Asia Bibi and proposed a review of the draconian law.  His killing was immediately followed by another high-profile murder of the minister for minority affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti. The killings in the wake of Asia Bibi case have nearly silenced the debate over scraping the discriminatory blasphemy law.

Chand Bibi: In April 2009, a YouTube video showed the Taliban publicly flogging a 17-year old girl, Chand Bibi, in Swat Valley. The video shocked the nation by exposing the Taliban’s barbaric ‘justice system’. The teenaged girl was flogged on charges of adultery in front of hundreds of people. A spokesman for the Taliban confirmed the incident, depriving the Taliban of public support in the area. Public backlash to the video was so intense that it paved the way for the Pakistani army to carry out an operation against the local Taliban in Swat.

The Baba Kot Girls: In August 2008, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) reported that five young girls had been shot and buried alive on the instructions of a powerful tribal elder in Baba Kot town of Balochistan province.  The girls, whose number is often disputed, were buried alive after they opted to marry for love instead of accepting marriages arranged by their families. When the tragedy was reported in the media, it triggered a massive public outcry. A Pakistani senator, surprisingly, defended the incident in the Senate and justified it as "our tribal custom". The perpetrators of the Baba Kot murders were never punished. Every year, hundreds of girls are killed in the name of honor, mostly by their own male family members.

Benazir Bhutto inspired a full generation of Muslim women in 1988 when, at the age of 35, she became the first Muslim woman to head a government. Ms. Bhutto was twice elected as Pakistan’s Prime Minister, and became a symbol of female courage. On December 27, 2007, Bhutto was assassinated after an election rally in the garrison town of Rawalpindi. Many Pakistanis, including Bhutto’s opponents, believed their country would never be the same again after her tragic murder. Despite a United Nations investigation, who exactly killed Bhutto remains a mystery, and her murderers remain at large until today.

Dr. Shazia Khalid, 32, is a physician who was raped on January 2, 2005 in the gas-rich town of Sui, allegedly by a Captain in the Pakistani military. While the Pakistani army headed by General Pervez Musharraf endeavored to cover up the case, the incident was eventually made public and triggered cacophonous reactions from the powerful Bugti tribe, considered the captain’s action an assault on the local customs.

General Musharraf publicly declared the captain "100 percent innocent" and went on to say, "a lot of people say if you want to go abroad and get a visa for Canada or citizenship and be a millionaire, get yourself raped." Dr. Khalid’s rape triggered the country’s worst conflict between the Pakistan army and the Baloch tribesmen, which continues today seven years later. The Pakistani army never put the captain on trial, and faced with death threats, Dr. Khalid had to flee Pakistan to England.

Mukhtaran Mai is Pakistan’s most high-profile victim of gang-rape. In June 2002, a tribal council in Punjab Province endorsed her gang rape. She was paraded naked in front of hundreds of people and raped by men belonging to a powerful tribe. Unlike many rape victims in Pakistan and throughout the world, Mai chose to speak up against her rapists and pursue a legal battle. Her courage unsettled Pakistan’s military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, so much that he imposed travel restrictions  on Mai by putting her name on Pakistan’s Exit Control List (ECL) for fear that if she would tell her story abroad and add to the country’s negative image in the world. She was also not allowed to meet with her lawyer. Glamour Magazine called Mai "The Bravest Woman in the World" and featured her as the 2005 "Woman of the Year." She has since then become a role model for Pakistani women by setting up her own organization to work for the welfare of rural women.

Malik Siraj Akbar, based in Washington DC, is an exiled Baloch journalist who founded The Baloch Hal, the first online English language newspaper in Balochistan, Pakistan. Formerly, he was a Regan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and a Hubert Humphrey Fellow at Arizona State University.

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