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Collateral damage: protesting the Swat flogging

A cell-phone video of the flogging of a 17-year-old girl in Swat has garnered much public attention in Pakistan over the last two days. Barely recovered from the previous attack on Manawan police station, the nation was not ready, perhaps, to come face to face this way with what dissident forces in the Northwest, the military and the government have wrought in Swat.

Watch the video.

It is important to witness that this violence took place, but be warned that it is very disturbing and will be triggering for a lot of people. A young girl, wearing a shalwar-qameez and covered in a burqa is held down by two men while a third lifts up her burqa and flogs her over her clothes. It’s unclear if he is hitting her lower back or her posterior. She is squealing and screaming in pain and protest, begging them to stop and promising them that she will never leave the house unescorted again. A large number of men ring the woman and her assailants, watching.

Before this news came to light, a protest was announced for Saturday afternoon, “against terrorism.” It was organized by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the Women’s Action Forum and various organizations the represent Pakistani civil society. When this video starting appearing on the news channels, SMS messages went around to the effect that, given the flogging of this girl, whose name is reported to be Chand Bibi, it is even more important for us to protest.

picture ⓒ Kyla Pasha
picture ⓒ Kyla Pasha

The protest contained a majority of women. There were hardly any black coated lawyers to be seen, and hardly any party members. It was mostly middle class individuals, and out of that, mostly women, protesting, shouting slogans, making speeches, marching. Asma Jehangir and Hina Jillani, big names in Pakistani human rights, were present and playing leadership roles. The communist party made a showing, but they stayed mostly amongst themselves, with their bright red hammer-and-sickles, sloganeering, it seemed, at each other.

As someone made another speech into a megaphone from the roof of a van, a strange thing began to happen. Women joined hands and started backing away, forming a circle. People were pushed out of the way by expanding empty space and craned to see what was happening. When enough people had gathered and the circle was big enough, four women stepped out of it, lay on the ground and covered their faces. This was the single most powerful and perhaps the only powerful moment of this protest. As they lay there, inert, the other women shouted, “Cowards, answer! Answer for the lashes!”

For the most part, though, it did not have the power that the lawyers’ movement protest did. And perhaps it’s because the thing being protested is so amorphous: terrorism.

Exactly which event is terrorism?The attack on the Frontier Constabulary in Islamabad that we got news of upon returning from the protest? That was a suicide attack, so I suppose that’s terrorism. Except that it’s one in a long string of attack against security forces in Pakistan, which has more the face of a guerrilla warfare. The flogging of Chand Bibi? Well, but the government cut a deal with the militants in Swat, the militants that had beheaded a number of people, killed and dislocated hundreds from their homes, the militants that are now forming their notion of Shari’a government in Swat. It’s called the peace accord and it is legally sanctioned by the government of Pakistan.

Is that terrorism? Is it terrorism because it took place before this peace accord? Or do we lose our claim over the term after we allow the terrorists to run an entire district of the country not according to Pakistani law, but their own brand of Shari’a?

The language of the war on terror does not work here anymore, if it ever did. We are under attack from without and within, from a movement much like the Afghani Taleban movement in its approach. It is guerrilla warfare in the cities of Pakistan and its objective is to destabilize the government. We need to move, because citizens are already becoming “collateral damage” in this war.

3 thoughts on “Collateral damage: protesting the Swat flogging

  1. Just a note to tall you how hard this hit me. As to defining “terrorism,” I took a graduate course in Terrorism at SUNY, and I still haven’t been able to come up with a precise definition of the term. Is it terrorism when the government or their representatives do it? Is it terrorism when your friends do it? Is it terrorism when bandits rob a bank? How about a ship? Is it a terror event to capture a ship in the Gulf of Aden? How about the Old West’s desparados, how about the Balkans under Ottoman domination which erupted in banditry? Personally, I think that it’s the corruption of language that has us by the neck. “Collateral damage” is a military phrase that means we killed civilians. Everything has the tinge of propaganda to it. Maybe that’s why the phrase “the war on terror” popular among the Bushies was dumped by the Obama adminisration. It’s all a confounding mess in which the competing forces fight with guns and words. Keep you perspective, keep your powder dry.

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