Female activists in Pakistan’s western Pashtun belt are playing a vital role in a movement demanding security and rights for a conservative region where women have been traditionally absent from public and political life.
The female leaders of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) have broken taboos and stereotypes by participating — and at times leading — peaceful protests.
The movement, now a year old, originated in the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). It is campaigning for an end to illegal killings, enforced disappearances, harassment, and other atrocities that its leaders say Pakistan’s estimated 37 million Pashtuns have suffered during more than a decade of violence that has killed tens of thousands and displaced millions.
“PTM activism has ended the climate of fear imposed on the Pashtuns by the militants and state institutions [in the name of fighting terrorism],” Wranga Luni, a medical student turned PTM activist, told Radio Free Afghanistan. The Pakistani military denies targeting civilians in its operations against the Taliban.
Luni, in her 20s, recently endured a personal tragedy. She and other PTM activists say her brother, Arman Luni, a college lecturer, was killed by police in the southwestern province of Balochistan in February. Pakistani authorities, however, claim he died of natural causes and have so far refused to officially probe his death.
“Nothing can deter us from demanding our rights,” she said. “The enthusiasm of our young activists, both men and women, tells me that the future of PTM is very bright.”
Last year, Luni emerged from obscurity to become one of the leading female voices of the PTM after she joined its protest in Balochistan’s capital, Quetta, following the emergence of the movement from a sit-in protest in the Pakistani capital in February 2018. The protest was sparked by the alleged police killing of an aspiring model in the southern seaport city of Karachi the month before.
“We rallied for equality for all minorities, women, and children,” Luni said. Within a few months, she was addressing tens of thousands of predominantly male protesters without covering her face in the conservative region where women are mostly relegated to housework.
She was encouraged by Arman to participate in the PTM protests. “He brought me books,” she recalled. “He said women’s awareness was important for our future survival in peace and with human dignity.”
Nowadays Luni is mainly pushing the government to investigate her brother’s death. Arman’s death in early February prompted a strike in Balochistan and protests across the country. On February 5, scores of PTM protesters were arrested across Pakistan.
Celebrated rights activists Gulalai Ismail was one of them. She was held incommunicado for more than a day and is banned from traveling abroad.
“It seems that the state actors are most afraid of women,” Ismail said. “They are afraid of women with voices.”
Her organization Aware Girls was shut down because of her activism. For years, her organization was promoting girls’ right to education in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which is home to most of Pakistan’s Pashtuns. Since 2009, Ismail has won numerous international awards for her work.
Since the emergence of the PTM, the Pakistani authorities have attempted to deflate its campaign by accepting or negotiating some of its demands while at the same time accusing it of working for foreign powers and fomenting instability in Pakistan. PTM activists have faced Islamabad’s wrath in the form of arrests, job losses, investigations, and travel bans.
In one of its latest pronouncements, however, top military spokesman Asif Ghafoor offered to join hands with the movement in January.
“The PTM is a non-violent movement, which is campaigning for its demands. We wish that the PTM leaders and other people [supporting them] will join the state in the [rehabilitation] phase, which is aimed at bringing relief and services to them,” he told Pakistan’s private ARY television in an apparent bid to join forces with the movement to bring development to former FATA.
But PTM activists have faced relentless pressure from the authorities. Sanna Ejaz, another female PTM activist, lost her jobs and faces cyberbullying for her work.
She was first fired from presenting shows on the state-run Pakistan Television Corporation. She later lost her job with a nongovernmental organization and was also pushed out of a leadership position within the youth wing of the secular Awami National Party.
"I was not doing anything wrong by supporting a peaceful demand for justice, for constitutional rights, and for peace," she told Radio Free Afghanistan. "I will not back down."
Ejaz says the activism gives hope to thousands of women across linguistic, ethnic, and class divides. “There is a light at the end of the tunnel for women in Pakistan,” she said.
In over a year of campaigning across Pakistan, the PTM’s female activists have called out the authorities on their abuses. “We are making history,” said Bushra Gohar, a former member of the Pakistani Parliament.
With short, graying hair, Gohar is used to standing out from a crowd in the South Asian country.
Gohar, in her 60s, seems impressed by the resilience and fearlessness women have shown since the birth of the PTM. However, she does not seem optimistic. “Those who chose to fight for their core principles do not think about gaining and losing,” she said.
Ismail, however, is adamant to continue her campaigning. “I will not opt for silence,” she said.
For Luni, there seems to be no relief as she looks after Arman’s two little girls.
“It is a long way to go. It won’t get easier,” she said. “But we are stronger as long as we remain peaceful.”
Freshta Jalalzai (@jalalzaif ) is a correspondent for Radio Free Afghanistan.