Driving to liberty?

July 19, 2019

I met Inaam Bacha and his wife Sumera in Thana City – a beautiful leafy town surrounded by beautiful mountains in Malakand District. It was inspirational to have a conversation with an...

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I met Inaam Bacha and his wife Sumera in Thana City – a beautiful leafy town surrounded by beautiful mountains in Malakand District. It was inspirational to have a conversation with an educated, progressive and cultured couple in a faraway town.

Sumera is the first woman of the district to have obtained a driving license and can now drive across the city. Why it is a big deal in Malakand Division is something we will come back to a bit later.

I was there along with my wife and young daughter on a family vacation. We enjoyed the natural beauty of Malakand and Swat and met with many exceptional, ordinary people. No big names of politics and business, they have contributed immensely to their communities. They had fascinating stories to tell, of horror that was the Taliban takeover and of courage, determination and resistance in the face of reactionary militant groups who had imposed a reign of terror in 2008-09 on Malakand Division. I mention only one here and that too very briefly.

Our host was Comrade Fazal-e-Rabi – a well-known progressive political and social activist of the town. Known as Lal Da in his town, he survived a Taliban attempt on his life in 2009. He came under attack because he led a campaign against the reactionaries and refused to leave the town. His courage inspired others to stay and resist.

It is really tragic that mostly educated, cultured people of Swat and surrounding areas went through horrendous pain and a catastrophic experience at the hands of fanatics. The Pakistani state and ruling classes need to learn important lessons from that time to prevent it happening again anywhere in Pakistan. Ultimately, it is the ordinary people who paid the price of the mistakes made and flawed policies pursued by the ruling classes and the state.

Women and young girls in Malakand Division were the worst victims, the famous and courageous Malala being only one of them. The schools for girls were closed down, women came to be imprisoned in their homes with gender segregation having taken an extreme form. It could be a bit difficult for us to understand what it really takes for a woman to drive a car in a conservative society that was ruled by ultra-reactionaries not very long ago.

There is no legal restriction on female driving in Pakistan including in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa but few dare to drive in the face of conservative tribal and feudal traditions and social norms that prevent women from deciding what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is bad for them even in matters of life and death for women. The state is no help, with its own laws and decrees imposing restrictions on women’s rights and seeking to determine and condition social behavior.

Sumera Inaam, a college teacher and mother of three beautiful daughters, decided to break with the norm and learn driving. She was encouraged and helped by her husband. But opposition too begins at home. Her in-laws opposed the idea but that did not affect her determination. For this she was brutally taunted and condemned as immoral. But, with the help of her progressive and enlightened husband she managed to become the first woman to get a proper driving license from the authority concerned.

There are social situations where such ‘small’ achievements could be liberating.

She can move around freely now without being in the company of a stranger called a driver. She drives to her college where she teaches economics. She still faces unfriendly stares from conservative men and woman who consider it immoral and sinful for a woman to drive. While travelling with her, we practically learnt what she goes through every day. A male passerby, on seeing her in the driving seat, remarked that she was the cause of hot weather and scarce rain. Her ‘sin’ could stop the rains and raise the temperatures.

But there are also those women and men in the area who appreciate and laud her courage and passion. Not everyone there is a dyed in the wool conservative bent on opposing new ideas and attitude tooth and nail. But it does take courage and strength to challenge norms and codes that are now so many fetters upon life and movement. Sumera told us that it was one of the happiest days of her life when she took her mother to the doctor and later drove about the hospital area. Her mother, who opposed her learning to drive initially, is now happy to see her daughter have her way.

Initiative opens the gates for others to follow through. Already, another woman has applied for a driving license in Malakand District. Change may slowly have started to come. The KP government should take initiatives to encourage women to become economically active and play a more independent and assertive role. Educated and confident young women such as Sumera can become agents of change. The active participation of women in social, political and economic life can help build a more tolerant, inclusive, progressive and forward-looking society.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

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