Today, waking up to headlines about a deadly suicide attack in the beautiful Swati city of Mingora which has claimed 14 lives of mostly innocent civilians and a few army personnel, injuring at least 65 others, I am overcome with grief and anger at what is happening in the beloved country of my youth. More so perhaps than if I had not just returned from a trip to Swat last week in the company of a bunch of Pakistani diehard cultural workers and one Greek academic, led by the well-known TV personality Atiqa Odho , all committed to the cause of peace and justice in Swat, in Pakistan, and in this planet we share. We made this journey to show our solidarity with the Swati people, particularly its women, who have suffered enormously under the reign of terror unleashed there in recent years, in the name of Islam, by the self-appointed leaders of the TTP –Tehrik-e-Taliban, or the Taliban Movement of Pakistan. These thugs seized the reigns of local power, and sought to challenge the writ of the Pakistani state, essentially demanding a state-within-a-state, which would be run according to their version of Islamic or Sharia law.
Last spring, when life renews its promise and is a season to behold in these hills and vales with their riotous profusion of flowers and apple blossoms, the central crossroad of downtown Mingora witnessed countless beheadings and floggings of men and women who were deemed as indulging in “unIslamic” behaviors—and all of us watched and listened in horror the images and screams of a young woman being held down by bearded men while one of them flogged her, supposedly for carrying on with a man not her husband. She at least was spared her life; Shabana, a dancer, was beheaded and her body displayed in the market square—which has since then become known appropriately as “khooni chowk”—the Bloody Square.
This, year, I flew in from New York to participate in a peace rally on International Women’s Day. For first time in the history of Swat, where the culture has generally remained conservative over time, local women and girls representing the pupils and teachers of surrounding area schools in the picturesque twin cities of Saidu Sharif and Mingora, came out on the streets. They wanted to show their joy and hope, they said to me, at what they, and most Pakistanis and the world had begun to view as the beginning of a new era of peace in the Swat Valley. Maybe now, they said, now that the Pakistani Army has managed to capture, kill, and chase out the Taliban insurgents, and helped resettle so many thousands of us who had fled and become displaced persons living in refugee camps, and helped rebuild some of our destroyed schools and homes, we can hope for a normal life for ourselves and our children. They expressed deep gratitude to the Army jawans for their sacrifices and continuing efforts to maintain peace and security. Many carried placards and shouted slogans of “Long Live the Pakistani Army.” And ofcourse, there could have been no rally without heavy Army protection for them and all of us visitors. The entire route of approximately a mile and a half which the rally followed, culminating at the newly-built Shuhada Park dedicated to the memories of the army personnel who lost their lives in the clean-up operation against the Taliban, was cordoned off by army vehicles, with snipers and sentinel posted at strategic rooftops. Indeed, that entire area of the twin cities of Mingora and Saidu were placed under curfew for the bulk of the day.
Of course, our group was very much a guest of, and under the protection of the Army unit in Swat. I spoke at length with the commanding officer in charge of hosting us. In response to my questions regarding the army’s problematic role and image amongst many, particularly those who consider ourselves progressive and left-leaning, in matters of governance, never mind the widely-known support the army has given to many Taliban factions, and ofcourse its backing of and by the widely-despised US government –led War on Terror of which Pakistan is a casualty, I got what was hardly an unsurprising response. The Army is doing the bidding of the federal government, we have worked hard and sacrificed much in order to recapture this area from the dreaded TTP, we have rebuilt many schools, clinics and homes destroyed by the extremists, and you can see and hear for yourselves that we are regarded as saviors by the Swati people. To my question whether the army could really provide a lasting solution to the myriad problems facing the region, such as endemic poverty, lack of institutional infrastructure to deliver gainful education and employment to the disaffected youth, lack of effective law courts to deliver justice to the people, he agreed—NO! Clearly, that is the job of the Pakistani civilian government, as well as concerned citizens, the so-called civil society of Pakistan.
Whatever one may think of the Army and its role in creating/dismantling these terror outfits, as well as its continuous interference in Pakistani politics, it seemed to those of us who participated in this rally, that life seemed to be returning to normal for the people of Swat, in large part thanks to the Army operation. Now, the rest of the Pakistanis –and foreigners–fearful of visiting this tourism-dependent area, needed to be convinced to begin going there on vacations so that over eight hundred and eighty four hotels in Swat which have been shut down for the past few years could re-open and begin doing business again. Business folks and philanthropists, including cultural activists like the singer Shahzad Roy, needed to be told to come and rebuild schools and show the people of Swat that they had not been forgotten. The government of Pakistan needed to be reminded of its duty to deliver good governance so that no one could be lured into siding with the Taliban who when they grabbed power in the region won over many with their delivery of ready cash and promise of speedy justice to countless locals whose cases in the government-appointed courts had been languishing for years with no resolution in sight.
Despite my skepticism and mistrust of the Army, and with hardly any hope invested in the current Pakistani civilian leadership either, I, along with my new-found friends of the road, felt energized by what we had witnessed—and the “jazba”—the spirit of the local women and girls who had come out of their homes and schools for this historic rally in defiance of traditional norms and in the face of potential danger. The native people we met really inspired us to do whatever we could to help them and more generally, to continue doing our bit to promote cultural, artistic, economic progress in Pakistan by such efforts and by condemning the regressive and anti-human agenda of all forces of darkness, be they native or external, imperialist or neocolonialist.
Once back in Islamabad, I prepared for my music concert at a well-known venue in town, singing my own brand of jazz/Indo-Pak classical/folk fusion. This too, is part of the cultural jihad we artists can and must wage against the enemies of joy and art and life itself. The same evening as my concert, I learned that Ajoka, a leading theatre company of Pakistan, led by yet another formidable woman amongst so many I have to come to know in my birth-country, was performing its controversial play, “Burqavaganza,” at the PNCA (Pakistan National Cultural Arts) auditorium. I had just enough time to dash there, see the play—if it started on time—and make it back for my own performance. I am glad I did, because not only did I get to see the play, which is a hilarious send-up of the national—and international—obsession with the Burqa—or hijab, but witnessed the courage that is needed to mount what appears to have become sadly, the extremist threat from within which has led even the cultural institutions who are meant to be guardians and promoters of free and liberal thought and art to cave to the self-appointed, Taliban-inspired morality police. These so-called guardians of public—and private—virtue, in the guise of supporters of the established religious parties such as the Jamaat-i-Islami, had prevailed upon the PNCA folks to cancel the performance of the play which was being held at the invitation of an NGO—Action Aid—as part of International Women’s Day celebrations. With no reason given to them as to why the play could not be performed, Ajoka’s director, Madeeha, decided to go ahead with the performance, and made a bold statement to the audience gathered in the auditorium about the need to resist the fundamentalist lobby not just outside the centres of power, but perhaps even more importantly, from within the very seats of elected institutions, such as the PNCA. Her opening speech to the audience resounded strongly with my own thoughts about the urgency of artistic and cultural activism during the Swat trip a few days prior:
“Burqavaganza” is a love story in the times when Pakistan is grappling with issues such as extremism, intolerance and terrorism. It uses the veil as a metaphor in a humorous and light-hearted manner. Burqavaganza is certainly not just about the burqa, it takes up many issues regarding women’s oppression in our society – with reference to the propagation of extremist values which are being forcibly implemented by the fundamentalist lobby. Obviously women are bearing the brunt of this Talibanization as we have seen in Swat and FATA where girls schools are being blown-up, women being publically lashed and artists beheaded mercilessly.
While the ten of us who had made it up to Swat had felt somewhat encouraged by the relative return to normalcy to the settled towns at least, despite the knowledge that it was an army-presence-induced “peace” (can violence ever be a precursor to peace?)—we knew the real work lay ahead if any peace worth its name could come to Swat, and by extension, to the rest of the country where more and more suicide bombings have become par for the course. For a while, there had been a lull, and as it turned out, it was the lull before the proverbial storm began again—today in Swat, and day before yesterday in Lahore, where there were 7 bomb blasts in one day, and a few days prior in Mansehra where offices of an international NGO-World Vision—were blown up and six of its employees killed, amongst them young women. The TTP has once again claimed responsibility for these attacks—claiming they are in retaliation for the continued drone attacks in South Waziristan by CIA and Pakistani-government sanctioned drones. It seems to me and many others, that the Pakistan army operations that have succeeded in routing the Taliban stronghold in Swat, and the Intelligence Services capture of high-profile leaders of the Taliban and al-Qaeda eg. Maulana Baradar and Adam Gadahn, also have rallied the terror outfits to respond with another wave of suicide attacks and bombings all over Pakistan.
The situation therefore remains tense and just when it seems as though there may be some way forward, one is reminded that what one sees as “hope” is a band-aid solution at best—and perhaps, may even be part of the problem. That problem is such massive inequality between the haves and the have-nots, such discrepancies in access to education and gainful employment, such ennui amongst the ones who could actually do something if they were to get involved instead of simply isolating themselves in their glass houses—that it is no wonder the air hangs heavy with cynicism and an epicurean mentality which is the other side of the terroristic coin.
For me, who can come and go at will to the country where I grew up in an era that seems like a figment of my imagination now, the only intervention I can make is by chronicling the bold call of an activist art. One which I admire because I know that those who remain steadfast in their adherence to its transformative power, no matter how slow and tangential it may appear at the moment, will one day help shape our mutual destinies into a better world for all. Indeed, we can draw heart from Ajoka’s rebellious defiance of the Law, when the law itself becomes a weapon against the freedom of thought and action; this is the Power of Performance. I shall keep this call in my heart as I sally forth tonight to perform my own play, Jihad Against Violence, tonight in Karachi.
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We are within our rights to question this arbitrary decision of the PNCA especially since the play has been performed several times at the National Art Gallery. We refuse to accept the absolutely unjustified “Ban’ on Burqavaganza by the PNCA and Ajoka is determined to make its voice heard today. We have struggled against oppressive dictatorships in the past and today we demand our right to the freedom of expression in a democratic Pakistan.
Yes. We do all have to stand up for our rights. What kind of Pakistan do its citizens want? That is the question which must lead to action. Now. And I hope it will be a Jihad against violence.
Fawzia Afzal-Khan is a Professor in the Department of English at Montclair State University in New Jersey. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org