Experience and apprehensions

January 29, 2023

Working women share harrowing memories of the past amidst fears that the Taliban are re-emerging

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n April 2010, our village was taken over by the Taliban,” recalls Ms Aliya who teaches at a private school in Swat. “Every day we’d hear that the Taliban had killed more people. We [the women] were afraid for our lives,” she says.

Aliya and her family were forced eventually to move in with a relative who lived in another city. “Thinking about those days sends shivers down my spine,” she says. “I really hope the Taliban never come back,” she adds.

Recalling the time the Taliban imposed the shuttlecock burqa on the women in the valley, Aliya says that only one woman owned a topi wala burqa in her neighbourhood. “We used to pass that burqa around to anyone who needed to go out,” she says. “Back then, you needed a burqa even to visit your doctor,” she adds.

Aliya says if the Taliban militants take over Swat, they will again ban women from the public sphere. “Women will not be allowed to work. They will not be allowed to get education. They will not be allowed visit the markets,” she says. “Look at what’s happening in Afghanistan. The Taliban have already banned women from schools and colleges,” she adds.

Huma Shakir, the administrator of a private school for girls in Swat, says that women were very unsafe when the Taliban seized Swat a decade ago. “I had been a college student in Sindh back then,” she says. “I came back to Swat and started working in a private school. The Taliban were disruptive. They forced us to wear shuttlecock burqas,” recalls Shakir.

“It got even more terrifying when the Taliban raided our school and abducted my brother. We could do nothing about it,” Shakir tells The News on Sunday. “At that moment, being a woman made me feel so utterly helpless,” she says.

Shakir says the Taliban do not belong to a specific community. “They are a product of ideology,” she says. “To me, those who are afraid of women and do not treat them equally are Taliban,” she says. “Unfortunately, the mindset is quite common in our society.Such people can be found in many a household,” she sighs.

According to Fayyaz Zafar, a journalist, there was a method to the madness that peaked when the Taliban seized Swat in 2006.

“The people of Swat were told that the Taliban were building a mosque. Mosques are embedded in the Pushtun culture and are deeply revered, so this announcement was welcomed,” says Zafar. “Initially, the Taliban went around collecting donations to build the mosque.After a while, they started collecting money and intimidating people,” he says.

“The Taliban were shrewd. They noticed that people listened to the radio, so they set up their own radio station. Early on, they used to preach in their broadcasts but soon they started attacking the notable people of Swat, spreading fear in the ranks of police, journalists and civilians. The state looked the other way.That was what emboldened the Taliban to establishtheir writ,” says Zafar.

Fayyaz Zafar says that reports about the Taliban had started circulating by the beginning of last year. In August, Taliban militants captured a deputy superintendent of police, an army colonel and a subedar. They released a video chronicling the episode.

This incident gained traction on social media. Zafar says that the people of Swat had already been protesting in small groups. Widespread protests erupted after another incident on the Bypass Road in Mingora. In early October, two unidentified men opened fire on an elderly man, Ali Syed, and his son, Anees Ahmad. When a school van was attacked in the Guli Bagh area, killing a man and injuring two students on October 10, the people staged several anti-Taliban protests.

NishatChowk, one of the central squares in Mingora, and the adjoining roads, were overflowing with protesters demanding security and peace. The demonstration was attended by thousands of people including students, businessmen, transporters, teachers, civil society members and journalists.

To put it in Zafar’s words, “… the Nishat Chowk became the Tahrir Square of Swat.” This protest was followed by similar demonstrations in Charbagh, Madyan, Matta, Barikot and Khawazkhela. This not only forced the Taliban to relocate but also showed the authorities that the people of Swat were unwilling this time to let the valley succumb to the Taliban.

Fayyaz Zafar is confident that the terrorists will never return to Swat. If they do, he says, the citizens will drive them away. “The Taliban cannot take over Swat again,“ he says,“but there is a chancethat the law and order situation in other parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa will deteriorate.“

Swat Qaumi Jirga leader Zahid Khan is less optimistic. Khan does not rule out the possibility that the Taliban will return. “They may come back. We are pinning our hopes on a popular resistance,“ says Khan.

“Women and children are the first to suffer in conflict,“ says Khan. “When more than 1.2 million people from Swat had to leave their homes in early 2009, and live in tents in other parts of the province, the government did not even provide them transportation,“ he says.

Zahid Khan says that the memory of the horrific murder of Shabana, a dance artist, will haunt him forever. In 2009, she was dragged out of her house to Mingora‘s Green Squareand shot by the Taliban.

The writer is a researcher and aminority language activist based in Swat. He tweets zubairtorwali

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