Protest and Purdah in Pakistan

How the Pashtun Protection Movement became a release valve for women’s anger.

Family members of missing Pakistanis hold photos of their relatives at a Pashtun Tahafuz Movement protest rally in Karachi, Pakistan, on May 13, 2018.
Family members of missing Pakistanis hold photos of their relatives at a Pashtun Tahafuz Movement protest rally in Karachi, Pakistan, on May 13, 2018. Rizwan Tabassum/AFP/Getty Images

PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN—Khwazhamina Wazir—or aday (Pashto for mother), as everyone calls her—is over 80. As you pull up to her home in Dera Ismail Khan, a tired, dusty city located approximately 190 miles from Peshawar, in November 2019 peals of laughter, the bleating of goats, and the sound of children playing in the afternoon sun break the silence. Inside the dwelling, made up of six ramshackle rooms built around a small courtyard, men are nowhere to be found; the ones in her family are either dead, in prison, or missing.

Wazir sat on a rickety charpai bed in the courtyard, her grandchildren and great-grandchildren surrounding her. The eldest was 18, a girl who said she wanted to move to Peshawar to study medicine. The youngest, a 1-year-old boy, was the son of one of Wazir’s sons, Ali Wazir, a member of parliament who had recently been released from prison, where he was serving a sentence for his alleged involvement in an attack on a military checkpoint in May 2019.

When Khwazhamina Wazir walks, she has a slight limp, and her shoulders slouch. But that didn’t stop her from standing strong behind a wood lectern the year before, at a rally for the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), also known as the Pashtun Protection Movement, in Bannu, a small city in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, bordering Afghanistan. On that day, before a sea of cheering men, she steadied herself with both her hands and told the crowd what she had lost over the years.

For many Pashtun women from Pakistan’s tribal districts, the movement offers necessary recourse—a way to register protest in the absence of stable state institutions.

“When my son [Farooq] was killed by militants, my husband said, we will not spare anyone,” Wazir screamed into the microphone. When she spoke about her husband, her voice grew louder. “He said, we will not let anyone destroy our land, our Waziristan. But it was after we took a stand that our entire family was destroyed.”

The crowd erupted into a chant that rippled through the field—“Da sanga azadi da?” they cried. “What sort of freedom is this?” Their chant, which gestures toward the Pashtun ethnic group’s grievances with the Pakistani state, has become the PTM’s battle cry, reverberating from the urban centers of Lahore and Karachi to smaller towns and villages. Activists demand an end to harassment, disappearances, and extrajudicial killings; the return of missing people to their families; and the creation of a truth and reconciliation commission. For many Pashtun women from Pakistan’s tribal districts, the movement offers necessary recourse—a way to register protest in the absence of stable state institutions and a venue for regaining control over their own fate.

On Sept. 11, 2001, 2,977 people were killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. As the world reeled from the aftermath of that tragedy, Wazir sat in the peach orchard outside her home, unaware of the catastrophe that had taken place some 7,000 miles away and unaware that soon, her life would never be the same again.

For Wazir and many residents of Waziristan, the word “Taliban” now bears two distinct connotations: The first refers to the successors of the Afghan mujahideen, nurtured by the Pakistani intelligence through the 1980s—and covertly backed by the CIA—as a resistance movement against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. This is the Taliban that eventually took over Afghanistan and that Pakistan worked to help defeat after 2001.

The second Taliban, however, bear a distinctly Pakistani identity: They included supporters of the Taliban in Afghanistan, as well as the foreign al Qaeda fighters (Arabs, Uzbeks, Uighurs, Chechens) who crossed over the Durand Line—the porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan drawn by the British in the 19th century—after the U.S. invasion in October 2001 and reorganized in Pakistan under the leadership of Baitullah Mehsud.

By December 2007, up to 13 militant groups had amalgamated under the umbrella of the Pakistani Taliban, also known as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. “The Uzbeks and the Tajiks came first, and the people of Waziristan were innocent and unaware—they felt sorry for them, gave them refuge,” 20-year-old Zeenat Khan, a sociology student from North Waziristan, said in November 2019 in Peshawar. “And then, these people, who gave the Uzbek and Tajik militants refuge in their own homes, were then picked up by military officials, labeled traitors to the state and spies. And the militants we brought into our homes, feeling sorry for them, they began to kill us too.”

“I’m not sure how the militants made it so far into the country without being stopped,” Khan mumbled after a moment’s pause. “Waziristan is one Pakistan’s most militarized zones, there are check posts every few kilometers.” But they did infiltrate the county, and on a balmy winter afternoon in 2003, one of Wazir’s sons, 33-year old Farooq, became one of the first victims of the militant insurgency in Pakistan’s tribal belt. Farooq Wazir, who was the son of a tribal elder, was killed by militants in broad daylight, right outside his family-owned gas station in the main bazaar in Wana, South Waziristan.

A year later, in March 2004, under pressure from the United States to capture Taliban militants fleeing into the region from Afghanistan, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf launched a clumsy, full-scale military invasion of South Waziristan. The operation ended badly, and that summer, on June 17, 2004, the first CIA drone strike hit South Waziristan, targeting and killing Nek Mohammed, a senior Taliban figure. It also killed five other people, including two children.

Just two years later, in July 2005, Wazir’s husband, another son, and three other family members were also killed. No one took responsibility for the attacks, but Wazir blames the Taliban. “When I came here [to Dera Ismail Khan] in 2005, after my sons and husband were murdered, I brought 15 orphans with me,” she told me. “The government gave me some money to compensate for the deaths, and with that money, I built this house. I raised my family.”

By 2007, U.S. drones and Pakistani F-16 fighter jets were a regular sight above the town of Mir Ali in North Waziristan. On a hazy February morning in 2008, as the jets thundered in the skies overhead, women working in the fields near the outskirts of the town ran toward the home of Zeenat Khan, who was around 10 years old at the time, and sought refuge in the basement. One of the women had lost 27 members of her family in a drone strike just days earlier. She was sobbing, Khan said, sitting under a slow-moving fan in an empty classroom at the University of Peshawar, where she studied sociology.

Eventually, Waziristan became the heart of the U.S. drone campaign in Pakistan: Between 2004 and January 2018, out of 430 drone strikes on Pakistan, 400 struck Waziristan, killing at least 969 civilians and 207 children. Militant leaders accounted for only 3.1 percent of all deaths.

In 2011, Khan’s parents packed up their daughters and settled them down in a rented house in Peshawar where they could still attend school, although they’d go back to Mir Ali over the summer. She would lay on a charpai on the veranda at night, with her sisters sleeping beside her—summer nights in Mir Ali are mild, and Khan’s home had no electricity. She would hear the distant rumble of an approaching plane or drone, or see lights twinkling in the sky. “I used to think death was knocking on my doorstep,” she said. Ten years later, she is still scared of the sound of airplanes.

By 2016, as many as 6 million Pashtuns had been displaced from North and South Waziristan. Those who were able to make their way to the urban centers of Karachi, Lahore, and Rawalpindi encountered harsh discrimination, racial profiling, and stereotyping. News articles reported widespread arrests of Pashtuns across the province of Punjab. Among those chiming into the rising outcry against the racial profiling of Pakistan’s second-largest ethnic group was Imran Khan, who is now prime minister but was a member of the opposition at the time.

But things were not much better when they began to return home. “When we came back home [in December 2017] the roofs on top of our homes were missing, all our belongings had been looted,” Khan said. “When he fled Mir Ali in 2014, my uncle took nothing with him, and when he came back, his home had been bombed to bits. The government gave him 10 lakh rupees [around $6,000]. Will that bring his home back?”

As Pashtuns were returning to their homes, the area was still governed by the draconian Frontier Crimes Regulations instituted by British colonizers in the 19th century. The law transformed tribesmen into imperial vassals and denied them access to colonial courts or redress against the government. Under the pretext of respecting the independence of the tribes, road and railway construction was limited there, as were irrigation projects.

The laws were finally abolished in May 2018 after protests led by the PTM rocked the country, and the tribal belt was absorbed into the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, governed by regular Pakistani law. Wazir’s son Ali Wazir and his comrade Manzoor Pashteen had helmed the movement.

“Now, Mohsin and Ali are our advocates,” Khan added, referring to Ali Wazir and a fellow PTM leader, Mohsin Dawar, who were elected to Pakistan’s National Assembly in 2018. “They are our only advocates in parliament. They advocate for our missing and our dead, and they suffer consequences for doing so. If elected members of the National Assembly are arrested for speaking the truth about what happened on our land, how do you expect us to feel safe?”

It is not surprising, then, that the protests continue apace. “People jeer at us, when they see protesting,” added Nabila, a 25-year-old graduate student from Shawa, North Waziristan. “They ask our men, what sort of Pashtuns are you? Do you have no ghairat [honor], bringing women onto the streets? And we tell them, this is how desperate we are. Our women are trapped inside their homes, with no means of income, and the men are missing or dead. That is why we protest. That is why we come out onto the streets.”

Indeed, since March 2018, Wazir, Khan, and scores of other Pashtun women like them have taken to the streets in search of justice, rallying behind the PTM. Although Pashtun society in the tribal belt is patriarchal, and women are generally veiled and silent outside the company of their immediate families, women are central to the movement. It is not uncommon to see them take the stage at PTM rallies.

“Me, an illiterate woman, has become so hardened by the times, that I am standing here, before you all, begging you to support me,” Basroza Bibi screamed into the microphone at one protest in Peshawar in April 2018. She was veiled from head to toe, her 13-year-old daughter standing next to her. The crowd listened quietly. “Da sanga azadi da,” she cried, waving her arms—“What freedom is this?” The sea of people chanted with her.

“When I was standing on the stage at the Tahafuz movement rally in 2018, I had no awareness of my surroundings,” she said in Peshawar in November 2019. “I only spoke about the pain in my heart.”

On a warm afternoon in May 2014, she recounted, her husband, Mohammadullah—a Pashtun laborer working Peshawar’s industrial estate—didn’t come home from work. “He used to take our 10-year-old son with him to the warehouse, and that evening, my son came home alone,” she said. “My son said an army officer arrested his father. They told him, we have some work with your father, we’ll let him go soon. It has been almost six years since that day, and I haven’t seen my husband.”

She carries his records with her wherever she goes, in the hope that she might find him somewhere.

Bibi lives with her three children in Jamrud, a small town near Peshawar. About a month after her husband’s disappearance, she ran out of money for food. “We had just enough money for flour. I made roti for my children and made them eat it with some garlic. Now, I work as a maid in four different homes—my kidneys are ailing, but I need to keep working to make ends meet.”

In July 2019, after Ramadan, a man came to visit Bibi in Jamrud. He was from the village of Badaber, south of Peshawar. The man told her that he spent five years with Mohammadullah in an internment center, the name the government gives its military detention centers, up until his release in December 2018.

“My husband had told the man to visit us, and to tell us that he was alive and being held in an internment center under false charges, and that we should pray for him,” Bibi told me. “My husband is innocent. He used to go to work in the morning, come home in the evening, he never hurt anyone, he had no political affiliations, no affiliations with the Taliban. He is a simple man.”

There are scores of others like him. In 2015, the New York Times reported the existence of 43 secretive internment centers across the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and the tribal belt. Four years later, in November 2019, a group of politicians and human rights activists from the province presented a petition before the Supreme Court of Pakistan to challenge the legality of the centers—now numbering seven—in the province and the tribal belt, arguing that they impinged upon fundamental rights by authorizing the armed forces to detain any individual, anytime and anywhere, without needing to give a reason or produce the accused before a court of law.

The court took notice, and a month later Asif Khosa, then the chief justice, demanded a list of inmates currently in detention from the attorney general. Two weeks later, Khosa’s term as chief justice ended. One of the petitioners, Farhatullah Babar, a politician and former senator, said in February 2020 that the case had been postponed by the new court.

As for the future of the PTM, it keeps chugging along despite the harassment faced by its participants.

For 30-year-old Sanna Ejaz, the price has been steep. Because of her involvement with the movement, she lost her job as a news anchor at Pakistan’s state-run television channel, had no source of income, and was named in several arrest warrants across the province. “I’m exhausted,” she told me. “I’ve been fighting for so long.”

But over several cups of tea at a hotel room in Peshawar in 2019, Ejaz described how she was committed to creating space for herself and other Pashtun women in the PTM. “We take to the streets to protest for our missing loved ones,” she said, “but we are also helping dismantle patriarchy, the roots of which lie in colonialism.”

“Bacha Khan told women to write columns in newspapers, to publish their names and not write anonymously,” she said, referring to the Pashtun leader Abdul Ghaffar “Bacha” Khan, who led an anti-colonial nonviolent resistance movement—the Khudai Khidmatgar—against British colonization in the 1930s. He encouraged Pashtun women to step out of their homes and to break the purdah—the veil.

Ejaz told me that the PTM draws inspiration from Bacha Khan’s movement. And indeed, his movement saw Pashtun women coming in large numbers to protest British occupation of their lands; as many as 200 to 300 women took part in a Khudai Khidmatgar demonstration in Charsadda in 1932. But there are less pleasant comparisons as well.

Bacha Khan formally expressed his allegiance to Pakistan and took oath in the country’s National Assembly the year after the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan, and yet his strong ties to Afghanistan and impulse toward Pashtun nationalism made many—particularly the Pakistani government—suspicious of his intentions. In fact, his demand for greater autonomy for the tribal belt and the North-West Frontier Province often got him into trouble with local Pakistani authorities, and he was arrested several times up until his death in 1988. Khan’s dying wish was that he be buried in Jalalabad, Afghanistan—a request that was fulfilled but cemented his name among traitors to the Pakistani state.

It seems possible that the same will happen this time. In January 2020, PTM leader Manzoor Pashteen was arrested—he was charged under a colonial-era sedition law and accused of disloyalty, hate speech, incitement against the state, and criminal conspiracy. The arrest triggered protests across the country, with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani also expressing concerns over Pashteen’s arrest. His statement was followed by a press release from Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, stating that Ghani’s tweets were “a clear interference in Pakistan’s internal affairs and hence, unwarranted.”

In short, although the PTM has certainly raised awareness of the plight of the Pashtuns, it has prompted increased hostility from the government. For activists like Ejaz, the road ahead is daunting, but there is lots of work to be done. “Even in the Tahafuz movement,” Ejaz said, “there are barriers for women, even though we would like to pretend that they’re not there. Patriarchy is embedded in our society—we need to speak up against it.”

Since January 2019, she has been quietly working to set up and support another movement—she calls it Waak Tehreek, or Movement for Empowerment. And unlike the PTM, Waak Tehreek comprises of only Pashtun women, on both sides of the Durand Line. Also unlike the PTM—which, with its large rallies and boisterous social media presence, has a tense relationship with the Pakistani state—the new movement focuses on smaller, more local issues in the tribal belt, such as cultural programs, library fundraisers, and climate change. At the heart of their grassroots campaign is a strong focus on empowerment and building a sense of community among Pashtun women, and, Ejaz says, things are already changing. On March 8, 2020—International Women’s Day—Ejaz and other Waak Tehreek members took to the streets of Peshawar with torches and posters. But unlike PTM rallies, this was a happy occasion, a cause for celebration, a sisterhood of women in a city where, for years, the women remained hidden from public view.

Reporting for this story was supported by a South Asian Journalists Association fellowship.

Zuha Siddiqui is a freelance journalist.

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