Swat Flogging and Public Outrage: Beena Sarwar

[This article was first published in Dawn 12 April 2009. It is reproduced here courtesy South Asia Citizens Web. The recent reports of the most spine-chilling instance of flogging of a young woman by Taliban goons unleashed a wave of indignation across Pakistan. This comment by Pakistani journalist Beena Sarwar is self-explanatory. For all the political illiterates and those given to anti-Muslim hate-speech in this country, this report and the innumerable discussions and posts on sites like Chowk, should indicate how much the Taliban and terrorism are hated and resisted by ordinary ‘secular’ people and women’s and human rights groups in Pakistan. They should indicate that ‘Islam’ and ‘being Muslim’ are themselves intensely contested ideas. But of course, we know that nothing can teach these hate-mongers anything, for they are the mirror-image of the Taliban. And as for us, as the old song goes: hum korea mein hum hain hindustan mein/ hum roos mein hain, cheen mein japan mein…And one might add: Pakistan mein bhi hain aur sare jahaan mein

(There we are in korea and in hindustan/in russia we are, in china and in japan/and in pakistan too we are, we’re in the whole wide world…)

It is people like us there who must fight the Taliban, and people like them here who must fight the Hindutva fascists  – always, relentlessly…Even when in the minority and especially when the political parties and leaders desert en masse. – AN]

Demo against womans flogging, courtesy LA Times
Demo against woman's flogging, courtesy LA Times

In the “flogging video’s” undated footage shot with a cellphone in Swat (judging by the language and clothes) a man whips a woman in red, her pinned face down on the ground and encircled by men. The leather strap strikes her back as she cries out in pain.

The video, circulated on the Internet before local television channels broadcast it, caused a furore both in Pakistan and internationally. What caused the outrage? The public punishment meted out to a woman — or the fact that it was broadcast?

Those who helped make the incident public, including the man who told a channel that he made the video, are under threat for their part in what many term a ‘drama’ staged to give ‘a bad name’ to Pakistan and to Islam. Political forces and local residents join this chorus, terming the video a bid to sabotage the peace deal. The Taliban say that the woman who was flogged was accused of illicit relations with her father-in-law and that the punishment was meted out by a small boy. The woman, whose face is not visible in the video, was accused of ‘adultery’ after allegedly being in the company of a na-mehram man. Her subsequent denial of the flogging before a magistrate reflects the intimidation she faces.

All this diverts from the real issue that such punishments have been and legally can be meted out to women in Pakistan, thanks to Gen Ziaul Haq’s controversial Hudood laws. Political dissidents and journalists have felt the lash on their backs. So have some women, a few in prisons, and at least one publicly in Bahawalpur. Those terming the video ‘fake’ argue that no one who was really flogged would be able to sit up, then walk on her own feet as the girl in the video did when she was led away. However, psychiatrists say that in highly charged situations, the body functions at a higher metabolic level to overcome physical pain. “The need to escape from that situation takes precedence over the pain”, says eminent psychiatrist Dr Haroon Ahmed.

Nasir Zaidi, one of the four journalists who were whipped in 1979 says, “It is entirely possible. We were whipped with a proper ‘hunter’, not a leather strap, and walked away. So did a young boy who was flogged before us. We did not want them to see our weakness.”

Hadd punishments (amputation, flogging, stoning to death) in fact have witness requirements which are so strict that they can practically never be met. These laws made adultery a criminal offence and rape a private one, punishable by flogging or stoning to death. Earlier, under the Pakistan Penal Code, adultery was a private offence, compoundable and bailable, punishable by five years or a fine, or both. The state could not be a party to prosecuting adultery.

In 1981, the Federal Shariat Court pronounced that stoning to death was not even an Islamic punishment (PLD 1981 FSC 145 Hazoor Baksh). Gen Zia had the bench changed. The new bench upheld the punishment. Islamic scholars such as Dr Mohammad Farooq Khan of Mardan term the Hudood laws as ‘the biggest insult to Islam’. The Council of Islamic Ideology has found them to be flawed and inconsistent with the teachings of Islam (CII Report, 2006). Gen Zia’s use of Islam for political purposes was meant partly to drum up support for the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, and partly to create terror and render the populace incapable of protest against oppression. This is what the Taliban are also doing. They have in the past deliberately videotaped such punishments and circulated the footage.

In March 2007, Taliban in Khyber Agency publicly stoned and then shot dead a woman and two men on charges of adultery. They videotaped the shooting and circulated it’s footage that even the most sensationalist of channels would think twice about broadcasting. The Swat flogging video is an aberration only in that the local media broadcast it. One reason for the broadcast (conspiracy theories aside) was that the footage, while horrific, involved no blood or limbs being lopped off. There have been other incidents of public executions of men and women in the region. In September 2007, the beheaded bodies of two women kidnapped in Bannu were found with a note in Pashto, warning that all women ‘involved in immoral activities’ would meet the same fate  like Shabana, the dancer in Mingora who was shot dead.

It is socially acceptable (but not necessary) for family members to punish ‘but never in public’ females who transgress their code of honour. The Taliban’s public violence goes against this code. It also overshadows ‘private’ gender violence, like swara, stove-burnings and beatings.

The first casualty of war may be the truth but the first casualty of any ‘religious militancy’ is women’s rights. During the Zia years, American and Pakistani intelligence agencies boosted this tendency when they re-invented the Afghan war of liberation against Soviet occupation as a religious war. The Mujahideen’s launching pads against the Soviets in Pakistan’s tribal areas are sanctuaries for their successors, the Taliban. The drug trade used to finance the war contributed to growing lawlessness, worsened by the influx of weapons. Sectarian violence escalated when the ‘jihad’ boomeranged after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan. The suicide bombing in Chakwal recently is just the latest such attack on imambargahs.

The Taliban’s treatment of women, including their ban on female education while in power in Afghanistan (please note, before the American drone attacks) takes Zia’s obsession with controlling women’s morality and public behaviour further. They have destroyed hundreds of girls’ schools, besides targeting teachers and NGOs attempting to provide health and education. Such NGOs have been under attack since before 9/11. Remember the summer of 2001, when Taliban attacked NGO offices in the tribal areas; the tragic murder in Mansehra of three women and their driver working for an NGO focusing on education on April 6 comes barely a year after an armed attack, also in Mansehra, in February 2008, that killed four employees of an organisation focusing on children and rehabilitation work after the 2005 earthquake.

One reason for the Pakistani state’s apparent paralysis is that the armed forces and large sections of the population think of this as America’s war, compared to the previous Afghan war with its religious trappings. In fact, that was less ‘our war’ than the current one, which threatens the very existence of the Pakistani state.

6 thoughts on “Swat Flogging and Public Outrage: Beena Sarwar”

  1. “It is people like us there who must fight the Taliban, and people like them here who must fight the Hindutva fascists – always, relentlessly…Even when in the minority and especially when the political parties and leaders desert en masse”

    Unfortunately ‘people like them’ failed shamefully in the days after the Mumbai attack. Refer to Ms. Sarwar’s articles then accusing Indians of ‘jumping to conclusions’ long after Kasab’s antecedents were exposed by journalists in distant UK.

  2. Ajit,
    It is not really a question of individuals – there are certainly many among such people (‘people like them here’) who are very anti-Pakistan as well – and I do not wish to name them for we have to fight many common battles together. Moreover, I am not really concerned with that part of the story. My point is that we all have our own battles to fight – us against the Hindutva goons and they against the Taliban. Their fight is of course much more dangerous – as is ours in some states and pockets of states in India. My point is that this batte is precisely over who and what constitutes a ‘Muslim’ (there) and who or what constitutes a ‘Hindu’ (here).
    As far as I am concerned – personally – I am opposed to the very concept of the nation-state – Pakistani or Indian, it matters little. Look at any nation-state anywhere in the world and security anxieties, identity anxieties and all kinds of hatred of the other is spawned by them and those not-yet nation-state but aspiring to be. I am not therefore impressed by those who think their’s is better than others’.
    Finally, isn’t it interesting that when the BJP/NDA was in power, we had Gujarat/Godhra, Akshardham attacks, parlaiment attacks, attacks in the Ayodhya premises – some thing or the other every day, and it almost seemed, if one were to go by the statements of the BJP leaders of those days, evreything was done by ISI – ISI ruled the country, not BJP! And why is the ISI not ruling India anymore? Not that terrorist attacks – even Pakistan and ISI instigated ones – have ceased but certainly life is not what it was under NDA rule. Much of this was simulated by the Pakistani and Indian state mirroring and mimicking each other. Since 2004, other agendas have emerged and even the Modis have had to talk dvelopment etc and not contest farcical elections against Musharraf!

  3. I would say, Ajit, that even if Beena Sarwar had been critical of the Indian state for “jumping to conclusions” she would have not felt very differently from many Indians, including myself and many others who too, who felt the same. (There have been many posts and discussions on this in kafila).
    “People like us there” and vice versa have no problems about being critical of our own nation-states and of each other’s. “People like them here” have often been very critical indeed of the Pakistani state. (Which is different from being “anti-Pakistan”, as Aditya points out, which is also a strand of secular politics in India.) The point is that as far as we are concerned there is no monolithic “India” or “Pakistan” – there are the Indian/Pakistani govts, media, religious right-wings, business interests, peace movements, ordinary citizens with families on both sides of the border, etc. etc. And “Indian/Pakistani” security is simply not synonymous with security for people in general.
    However, pulling out one of the pieces that Beena Sarwar wrote at the time, what I see is a sharp critique of the Indian media’s war hysteria and over-the-top reporting (an opinion held by most Indians – and not only on kafila!) along with an equally sharp critique of reactions to this in Pakistan.
    I do want to restate quite clearly – it is not at all mutually incompatible to be anti-Taliban/Hindu Right and suspicious of the Indian and Pakistani state machinery simultaneously – indeed, i would say the two go together!

  4. “I would say, Ajit, that even if Beena Sarwar had been critical of the Indian state for “jumping to conclusions” she would have not felt very differently from many Indians, including myself and many others who too, who felt the same.”
    Hmm…I guess I would feel the same towards those Indians as I do towards Sarwar. Not sure what is wrong abut jumping to correct conclusions. Or what is right about repeating the accusation after the conclusions have been verified.

  5. I think we might disagree on whether the “correct conclusions” have been reached, whether they have been “verified”, etc.
    Yes, I’m sure you feel the same towards “those Indians” as you do towards Sarwar – that’s my point exactly. The clear border-divides routinely assumed to be natural and unquestionable by nation-state mentalities do not exist for many of us on both sides.

  6. Nivedita, you are right. The border divides are completely imaginary as are our territorialities and transgressions. I wish we got past borders and focussed on values and issues instead.

We look forward to your comments. Comments are subject to moderation as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s