Terrified, locked up at home and courting death if they go out alone, women oppressed by Taliban extremists in Pakistan’s Swat valley have nothing to celebrate on International Women’s Day.
Nearly 100 years after the annual day was created to mark the struggle for equal rights for half the world’s population, most women in Swat look blank and go silent when asked about gender rights and discrimination.
They’re too frightened to speak in public. They can only leave the confines of their homes accompanied by a male relative, their bodies hidden in veils.
”How can I tell you my name, are you crazy? I was told not to give my name to anyone because the Taliban could hurt me,” one girl in the ninth grade told AFP by telephone from the former ski resort.
For nearly two years, thousands of Taliban fighters have waged a terrifying campaign to enforce their repressive interpretation of Islam in Swat, transforming the region of majestic mountains and lush valleys into a war zone.
Last month, the government signed a widely criticised agreement with a pro-Taliban cleric to enforce sharia law in exchange for a ceasefire in a region where most locals say the Taliban have become the masters.
The girl’s dreams of becoming a doctor are over. She worries the Taliban will stop her finishing school, regardless of her parents’ support.
”My mother told me I can do anything, but my inner soul is shattered.
”Tell me if you stop women getting an education where will a sick woman go? Do you want her to go to a male doctor? I was told that education is compulsory for every man and woman in Islam but the Taliban destroyed our schools.”
Militants have destroyed 191 schools in the valley, 122 of them for girls, leaving 62 000 pupils with nowhere to study, local officials say.
Huma Batool — not her real name — is a 42-year-old mother of two who dices with death to teach girls at a private school in the region’s main town Mingora.
”We have to veil ourselves and wear shuttlecock burqas. We are not safe even at home. We fear the Taliban all the time. Life is becoming worse and worse for women in Swat,” she told AFP by telephone.
Educated and financially self-sufficient, she cannot even pop to the shops without a male relative, leaving her frequently couped up at home for hours, waiting for a suitable escort to become available.
”You cannot imagine how I manage to get to school, practically every day I think about leaving the job and sitting at home.”
Taliban hardliners have outlawed entertainment as un-Islamic, shut down beauty parlours and closed shops considered dens of vice rather than virtue.
”Life bores us to tears. There is no entertainment. We can’t even think about cable TV, cinema, film and music. Imagine I can’t even go shopping or to the bazaar as women are banned by Taliban.”
Salma Javed (35) is a nurse at a local hospital, where women — however sick — can only be admitted if accompanied by a male relative.
”Every woman fears she will be killed if she comes out, so even sick and pregnant women have to visit hospital with their husbands.”
Salma would love to leave, but she cannot scrape together the money to set herself up in Peshawar, the teeming metropolis of Pakistan’s northwest, or in the capital Islamabad barely 160km away.
”Now we are waiting to see what will happen after the peace deal, but let me tell you things will not change for women,” she said.
The only light in Shahnaz Kousar’s life is that the Taliban — at least for now — are allowing her to go to school in Mingora. But outside her 10th grade classroom, the daily pleasures of shopping and make-up are gone.
”We are now totally depending on Taliban.
”There’s not a single shop left where I can go and buy cosmetics, all shops selling women’s things are either closed or empty.
”I remember when I used to go to this market with my mother and sisters, but now it seems like a dream.” — AFP