Women activists in Pakistan’s tribal regions demanding security and rights for the country’s Pashtun minority sent video messages to RFE/RL’s Afghan Service for International Women’s Day March 8, one month after a government crackdown saw several of them detained during protests in the capital, Islamabad.
Altogether than 40 members and supporters of the Pashtun Protection Movement (PTM) were detained across Pakistan during protests against police violence February 5. The detention of ethnic Pashtun activists has aggravated long-standing tensions with neighboring Afghanistan, where Pashtuns are the majority, over Islamabad’s treatment of peaceful protestors.
“This movement is unique in the region because it has included women at the forefront from the very beginning,” said RFE/RL’s Afghan Service journalist Freshta Jalalzai. “Women from this very conservative area do not go out and protest, so it sets the PTM apart that they have women boldly organizing rallies and giving speeches, often without covering their faces. And the men in the group want them there by their side.”
Formed last year by university students from the tribal regions, the PTM is demanding an end to the night raids, security checkpoints, arbitrary detentions, and extra-judicial killings they say average Pashtuns are subjected to by the Pakistani military in the name of fighting terrorism. Peaceful protest is core to the PTM movement.
Among the PTM women who sent video messages to Jalalzai was Gulalai Ismail, a human rights activist from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and winner of the 2017 Anna Politkovskaya Award in honor of the slain Russian journalist. Gulalai was arrested at the February demonstration in the capital, and was held incommunicado for two days. She says she was told on her release that she is banned from leaving the country.
“It seems that the state actors are afraid of women the most,” said Ismail. “They are afraid of women with voices.”
A former television presenter with the Pakistan Television Corporation, Sanna Ejaz, said in her video message that as a result of her involvement with the PTM, she has been fired from her job, removed from her position as vice-president of the youth wing of the Awami National Party, and disavowed by other professional affiliations. She believes her employer and the other organizations were pressured by state security services to break ties with her.
“Yes, my life is disturbed and I’m stressed, but I’m brave enough to face it,” she said.
Though she now relies on family and friends for financial support, Sanna says the personal sacrifice has not deterred her.
"I was not doing anything wrong by supporting a peaceful demand for justice, for constitutional rights, and for peace," she told RFE/RL’s Afghan Service. "I will not back down."
Probably the most painful story is that of Wranga Luni, a young student from Baluchistan, one of Pakistan's most impoverished provinces. Luni’s brother Arman, a leader of the PTM, was reportedly beaten to death during clashes between PTM demonstrators and Balochistan police. His family accuse the police of intentionally killing the young man. The Pakistani government denies this allegation.
His death sparked PTM protests across the country, including the one in the capital where Ismail and others were arrested.
“We rallied together for equality for all minorities, women, and children,” Luni told RFE/RL’s Afghan Service in her video message, explaining that she is now responsible for taking care of her two nieces after her brother’s death. She still attends PTM protests, always holding a portrait of her brother.
Jalalzai says despite the recent violent crackdown on protestors and detentions, the peaceful nature of PTM protests and the fact that women have taken such a prominent role in the movement means the Pakistani authorities will have to exercise more restraint in the future or risk a broader backlash against their counterterrorism operations in the tribal regions.
For their part, the women of the PTM have no intention of backing down.
“I made a promise to Anna when I was awarded,” said Ismail. “I will not opt for silence.”
—-Emily Thompson/Freshta Jalalzai