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The Cost Of Women's Rights In Northwest Pakistan

Jul 19, 2012
Originally published on July 19, 2012 8:31 pm

Earlier this month, 25-year-old Farida Afridi, who ran an organization that provides information for women about their rights, was gunned down in the street, near the city of Peshawar in northwest Pakistan. No one has been arrested for this killing. In all likelihood no one will be.

On July 4, Afridi was leaving her home to go to her office in Peshawar. What happened next shocked the local community, says Zar Ali Khan, who heads a consortium of activist groups in Peshawar.

"When she was coming from her home early in the morning at 6 a.m., she was intercepted by two motorcyclists," Ali Khan says.

The men on the motorcycles pulled out guns. This was something that Afridi had been warned about, many times, he says.

Three years ago, Afridi created SAWERA, or the Society for Appraisal and Woman Empowerment in Rural Areas. She gave lectures and provided information on women's rights. But in the process, she caught the attention of some in northwest Pakistan who didn't like her message.

"They had warned her not to go and work for the empowerment of women, for the rights of women," Ali Khan says.

There were at least a dozen warnings. Then came the attack.

'Enemies Are Around Us'

The men on the motorcycles opened fire. Afridi was hit five times in the head and chest areas. The motorcyclists sped off.

So far no one has claimed responsibility for the killing. But when Ali Khan sat in mourning with Afridi's father, he said he asked him who he thought had carried out the killing.

"I put the question, 'Who killed her?' And he said, 'You know and I know well. Our enemies are around us,' " Ali Khan says.

Members of Afridi's family and their larger tribe believe militants with links to both al-Qaida and the Pakistani Taliban were responsible.

This area of northwest Pakistan does not come under the jurisdiction of the federal government or its constitution. What that means is that there are no Pakistani police. It's what Ali Khan calls a human-rights-free and democracy-free zone.

"No human rights is here, no constitutional rights is here, no democratic rights is here," Ali Khan says.

Afridi's group worked for the empowerment of women in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan.

"Essentially, we are asking about the women having fundamental access to resource," says Dr. Farzana Bari, a professor of gender studies at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. "That means education, good health, ability to work, economically independent, and make choices for themselves, you know, for their own lives."

An Ongoing Mission

Afridi's killing certainly isn't the first of its kind in northwest Pakistan. Other women have been killed in recent years for pursuing the same kind of activities. Last year, a man who worked for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan was also killed in the same town where Afridi lived.

Still, despite the dangers, this work continues in northwest Pakistan, Bari says.

"Sometimes this kind of a grief and ... loss makes you [an] even ... stronger person," Bari says.

Afridi and her younger sister Noorzia worked together at the organization. Noorzia, too, has been warned. The threats come in text messages on her cellphone.

In a small and heavily accented voice speaking by telephone from Peshawar, Noorzia says others in the community want her to quit. They urge her to sit at home and stop these kinds of activities.

"They said [to] me don't go anywhere. ... Sit at home and don't do these activities or this job," Noorzia says. "I will never leave this job because it's the mission of my sister and [God willing] I will complete it."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We'll report next on a place in Pakistan where no law prevails, and even young women can be killed with impunity. Earlier this month, a 25-year-old woman was gunned down in the street. She was living near the city of Peshawar, close to the border with Afghanistan. She ran an organization that provides information for women about their rights. So far, nobody has been arrested for her killing, and in all likelihood, nobody will be. NPR's Mike Shuster has the story from Islamabad.

MIKE SHUSTER, BYLINE: Her name is Farida Afridi. It was on July 4th, early in the morning. She was leaving her home to go to her office in Peshawar. What happened next has shocked the local community, says Zar Ali Khan, who heads a consortium of activist groups in Peshawar.

ZAR ALI KHAN: When she was coming from her home early in the morning at 6 a.m., she was intercepted by two motorcyclists.

SHUSTER: The men on the motorcycles pulled out guns. This was something that Farida Afridi had been warned about many times, says Ali Khan. Three years ago, she created SAWERA, or the Society for the Empowerment of Women in Rural Areas. She gave lectures, provided information on women's rights. And in the process, she caught the attention of some in northwest Pakistan who didn't like it.

KHAN: They had warned her not to go and work for the empowerment of women, for the rights of women.

SHUSTER: At least a dozen warnings, says Ali Khan. Then came the attack. The men on the motorcycles opened fire. Farida was hit five times in the head and chest.

KHAN: And she died instantly, on the spot.

SHUSTER: The motorcyclists sped off. So far, no one has claimed responsibility for the killing, but when Ali Khan sat in mourning with Farida's father, he said he asked him who he thought had carried out the murder.

KHAN: I put the question: Who killed her? He said you know, and I know well. Our enemies are around us.

SHUSTER: Farida's family and their larger tribe believe militants with links to both al-Qaida and the Pakistani Taliban were responsible. Farida's group worked for the empowerment of women in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan. But just what does that mean? It's a question I put to Farzana Bari, a professor of gender studies at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.

FARZANA BARI: Essentially, we are asking about the women having fundamental access to resource. That means education, good health, ability to work, economically independent, and make choices for themselves, you know, for their own lives, you know.

SHUSTER: No one has been arrested for her murder, and Ali Kahn says probably nobody will be. This area of northwest Pakistan does not come under the jurisdiction of the federal government or its constitution. What that means is that there are no Pakistani police. It's what Ali Kahn calls a human rights and democracy-free zone.

KHAN: No human rights, no constitutional rights, no democratic rights is here.

SHUSTER: This killing certainly isn't the first of its kind in northwest Pakistan. Other women have been killed in recent years for pursuing the same kind of activities. And last year, a man who worked for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan was also killed in the same town where Farida lived. Still, this work continues in northwest Pakistan, Farzana Bari says, despite the dangers.

BARI: Sometimes this kind of a grief and the loss makes you an even stronger person, you know.

SHUSTER: Farida and her younger sister Noorzia worked together at SAWERA. And Noorzia, too, has been warned. The threats come in SMS messages on her cell phone. In a small and heavily accented voice speaking by telephone from Peshawar, Noorzia says others in the community want her to quit. They urge her to sit at home and stop these kinds of activities.

NOORZIA AFRIDI: They said me don't go anywhere. And sit at home and leave these activities or...

SHUSTER: I will never leave this job, Noorzia said, because it is the mission of my sister. And, God willing, I will complete it. Mike Shuster, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.