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02 Mar 2009 13:04
Girls in Pakistan’s Swat Valley can attend school but must wear veils that cover their heads and faces, a top official said on Monday after the government pledged to impose Islamic law in the area during much-criticised peace talks with Taliban militants.
Provincial chief minister Amir Haider Khan Hoti also said the government would do its best to install religious judges by a mid-March deadline demanded by a hardline cleric mediating the talks.
Taliban fighters in Swat have destroyed scores of girls’ schools in fighting that stretches back more than a year, and at one point declared a ban on female education in the one-time tourist haven.
Many girls’ schools have reopened since a ceasefire took hold last month, but the government’s pledge to impose Islamic law in the northwest valley has raised the question of whether it will interpret religious rules as harshly as many in the Taliban.
The Swat Taliban and the military agreed last month to an open-ended ceasefire after months of fighting that has killed hundreds and displaced up to one-third of the valley’s 1,5-million residents.
No officials have said the peace process would require the militants to hand over their weapons, leading many analysts to speculate it will quickly unravel. American and European officials have also raised concerns that it could turn the valley—located near tribal regions where al-Qaeda and the Taliban have strongholds—into a safe haven for militants.
In a visit to Swat’s main city of Mingora, Hoti told reporters on Monday that girls would have access to schooling, but must don the “proper and required dress, which is a culture of this province and Islamic norms”.
Most girls and women in the region already wear all-encompassing veils that they drape over the lower half of their faces.
It was unclear whether Hoti’s declaration had the force of law.
But it was unlikely to apply to the youngest schoolgirls in Swat, who often wear small headscarves.
The provincial government in northwestern Pakistan made the pledge to establish Islamic courts in Swat and surrounding areas to Sufi Muhammad, a pro-Taliban cleric who agreed to then negotiate with the Swat Taliban.
Pakistani officials insist the plan will mostly mean changes in the court system, something many local residents unhappy with the inefficient secular courts would welcome.
Muhammad said on Sunday he was not happy with the pace of creating the religious courts, and that his followers would stage protests if new, religiously trained judges were not in place by March 15.
Hoti said he expected there will be enough progress on the matter by mid-March to satisfy Muhammad. He also warned both sides to be wary of trouble from “elements” and a “foreign hand” who do not want to see peace in Swat.
Those comments came following an attack on a security convoy on Sunday that the military said was a violation of the ceasefire.
“There is no more room for any bloodshed in Swat as the people of this area have seen much bloodshed and destruction,” Hoti said.—Sapa-AP
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