Zuha Siddiqui is a journalist reporting from Pakistan.

Firebranding the Frontier: The Women of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement

Read original piece in Jamhoor here.

On March 11th, 2018, hundreds of supporters of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) carried black flags and posters bearing faces of missing loved-ones to a football field in Pakistan’s western city of Quetta. Wrunga Luni — a woman in her mid-twenties, swathed from head-to-toe in bright purple — stood up on stage before the crowd. Seated beneath her in a cordoned-off enclosure was a sea of men and a handful of women. The younger sister of renowned Pashtun poet and revolutionary Arman Luni, Wrunga was no stranger to protests. At earlier rallies and demonstrations, it was Wrunga who stirred up crowds with her words. Arman stood on the sidelines, quietly watching his sister subvert patriarchal traditions. “There are so many of you here demanding justice. But why did you leave the women at home?” she screamed into her microphone that evening. “Pashtun women! You have to take part in this movement. Get rid of these symbols of slavery,” she cried, shaking the imaginary bangles on her wrist as her voice grew louder. “Take off your bangles, your anklets, your nose-rings, and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with men.” The crowd burst into cheers. 

“‘Pashtun women! You have to take part in this movement. Get rid of these symbols of slavery,’ [Wrunga Loni] cried, shaking the imaginary bangles on her wrist as her voice grew louder.”

Women play an integral role in this movement that has sprung from Pakistan’s conservative heartland — home to the country’s second-largest and severely marginalized ethnic group, the Pashtuns, and the place where the mujahideen rebels that eventually became the Taliban were born and trained. Year after year, this region has witnessed war, terror and strife. With men missing or dead, women have spilled onto the streets, carrying the mantle for their loved ones

A group of young Pashtun students at Gomal University, a public university near Pakistan’s tribal belt bordering Afghanistan, began the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement in January 2018. The word tahaffuz roughly translates to protection in both Urdu and Pashto, and the movement represents the collective grievances of an ethnic group that has been left vulnerable in the aftermath of several years of war. On their land, mujahideen training camps, flushed with cash from the C.I.A., mushroomed rapidly in the 1980s, recruiting young locals to fight a holy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Taliban militants, successors of the mujahideen, crossed back onto Pashtun lands in Pakistan, terrorizing local residentskidnapping local and foreign reporters, and looting homes. US drone strikes and successive military operations launched by the Pakistani armed forces attempted to weed out these militant groups, and in their wake, bombed villages and left one million displaced. 

Living in camps across the country, displaced Pashtuns faced harsh discrimination. In 2014, the provinces of Sindh and Punjab barred their entry, and in 2017, the government began racially profiling Pashtun labourers, hawkers, and shopkeepers in the province of Punjab and the capital, Islamabad. Police surveilled communities and arrested hundreds. Authorities claimed that these measures were part of a broader counter-terrorism strategy

When Pashtuns of the tribal belt began returning to their homes towards the end of 2017, they discovered that although the war had ended, its relics remained: local residents were harassed and maltreated across a web of military checkpoints, and landmines left many injured. In May 2017, 80 percent of the 944 public schools in the region were not operational, and the area lacked basic facilities including electricity, clean drinking water, hospitals, and cell phone service. And then, there were the missing: 32,000 Pashtuns had gone missing over the past decade, Manzoor Pashteen, one of the leaders of the PTM movement, told a local newspaper in March 2018. Now, the PTM is giving their loved ones a platform to voice their grievances.

“Like the PTM, [Bacha] Khan’s nonviolent Khudai Khidmatgar Movement saw women coming in large numbers to protest British occupation of their lands.”

This isn’t the first time, however, that a progressive, nonviolent movement has emerged from Pakistan’s tribal frontier. History textbooks in Pakistan often gloss over the legacy of Abdul Ghaffar “Bacha” Khan, a progressive Pashtun anti-colonial leader who raised an “unarmed army” of Pashtuns against the British in the early 20th century. Like the PTM, Khan’s nonviolent Khudai Khidmatgar Movement saw women coming in large numbers to protest British occupation of their lands. But his Pashtun nationalism placed him at loggerheads with the nascent Pakistani state once the British left in 1947, and all that remained of “Frontier Gandhi” was a university and an airport bearing his name.  

At a PTM rally in Quetta last year, a young activist named Jalila Haider raised the slogan Da sanga azaadi da? [“What freedom is this?”] before the crowd. “Yeh jo dehshatgardi is ke piche wardi hai,” she screamed. “Behind this terrorism are military uniforms.” The crowd chanted after her. Maheen*, a young college student in the northwestern city of Lahore, attended a PTM rally in her town last year and told me that this was the first time she had heard a Pashtun woman talk about her pain and anguish before a large crowd. “My main interaction with this language [Pashto] is with my family. I hear women speak in their homes and houses and living rooms, to their daughters and to their husbands,” she said. “That day, I heard a woman scream about her pain, and how she has been waiting for years for her husband to come home.” 

Like the Mothers of the Plaza Del Mayo in Argentina and the Saturday Mothers in Turkey, many of these Pashtun women — mothers, daughters, sisters and wives of missing men, many feared dead — have been protesting for their missing loved ones. Qasim Khan, a researcher at the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan based in the northern city of Peshawar, has been quietly witnessing the unfolding of this movement since late 2017. “I met an old woman at a rally in Swat last year. She had lost both her sons,” he said. “One was taken by the Taliban, the other, she said, was picked up by the military five years ago.” The valley of Swat had been under Taliban occupation from 2007 to 2009, until they were eventually driven out by Pakistan’s military. It was also here that Nobel Laureate Malala Yousufzai was shot in the head by Taliban gunmen in 2012.  

Khan later said that the PTM was turning into a “pressure-cooker”. “How long do you expect people to keep enduring persecution?”, he asked. Protesters have also had to bear consequences: the press in Pakistan is heavily censored and does not report on the movement’s rallies and demonstrations while activists are arrested and harassed on a routine basis. When progressive Pashtun activist, Ismat Shahjahan was detained on April 21st for her involvement with the PTM — 24 hours before a large demonstration scheduled in Lahore — news channels did not report her arrest. It was only after videos surfaced on Facebook and Twitter that she was released. 

“‘My attempt was always to make sure that women are visible in this movement, and that visibility created space for tribal women to come forward and share their stories’, [Gulalai Ismail] said”

Just last month, Pashtun activist Gulalai Ismail was arrested and detained— her whereabouts unknown for several hours. I spoke to Ismail, and she described her arrest as a strategy meant to frighten people — and women, in particular — into silence and submission. “My attempt was always to make sure that women are visible in this movement, and that visibility created space for tribal women to come forward and share their stories,” she said. Earlier this year, Ismail, Shahjahan and three other activists visited the village of Khaisor in North Waziristan and heard Pashtun tribal women narrate horrific descriptions of military raids on their homes. “About thirty women came to see us that day,” Ismail said. “The only visitors they had ever received before us were the armed forces bombing their homes.”

Despite the harassment they have endured, Shahjahan and Ismail persist. “I wish we could have started protesting earlier,” Ismail added. “I’m almost ashamed that we didn’t. The mental health of women from tribal areas has deteriorated so much that they cannot endure another day of war.” Shahjahan agreed: “Women came out of their homes when we visited them, pleaded and cried, and asked us to help them bring their children back. We cried with them.”

On February 2nd 2019, the PTM had its first casualty — Wrunga’s very own brother, Arman. In what was later described as a police encounter, Arman was beaten to death. After his funeral prayers, Wrunga, swathed in black, addressed the crowd and thanked them for coming. Later, she posted a video on Facebook in which she pinned her brother’s death on the state — the qatil riasat [the murdering state]. “Pashtun women must speak up, otherwise hundreds will be murdered like Arman,” she said.

Zuha Siddiqui