A Bright Light Goes Out in the Tribal Belt
A Pakistani women’s rights activist is murdered—but why wasn’t she protected?
My heart broke when I heard about the death of Farida Afridi, a 25 year-old Pakistani woman who was shot in Peshawar, Pakistan last month. Afridi was a brave champion of women’s rights. Along with her sister Noor she founded the Society for Appraisal & Women Empowerment in Rural Areas (SAWERA), a local woman-led NGO dedicated to the empowerment of women and peace in the Khyber Agency of Pakistan’s tribal belt. As the human rights manager for SAWERA, Afridi was active in promoting social and economic development, with a particular focus on marginalized women and children.
- Pakistan is a country of contradictions – full of promise for growth, modernity and progress, yet shrouded by political, social and cultural issues that undermine its quest for identity and integrity. My bi-monthly column “Pakistan Unveiled” presents stories that showcase the Pakistani struggle for freedom of expression, an end to censorship, and a more open and balanced society.
- Bina Shah is a Karachi-based journalist and fiction writer and has taught writing at the university level. She is the author of four novels and two collections of short stories. She is a columnist for two major English-language newspapers in Pakistan, The Dawn and The Express Tribune, and she has contributed to international newspapers including The Independent, The Guardian, and The International Herald Tribune. She is an alumnus of the International Writers Workshop (IWP 2011).
Local Taliban groups are suspected in the attack on Afridi, who was shot in the head as she left her house to go to work on July 4. She reported having received threats from the Taliban before the attack, and chillingly predicted her own death a month ago.
Afridi is not the first social worker to be murdered by militants, who have publicly declared that they would kill anyone found working in the fields of social and human rights. The Taliban are opposed to NGOs that work in these fields because they see them as on-the-ground proof of Western interference and infiltration in the social system of the tribal belt. Social workers Zartif Khan Afridi and Mukarram Khan Atif were also shot and killed in the past year.
For her part, Afridi, who had a Masters in Gender Studies, correctly identified patriarchy as the root cause of the marginalization of women in the Khyber Agency. According to SAWERA’s website, in the tribal areas patriarchy allows men to keep women from gaining an education. Furthermore, a lack of peace and security in the region have stunted social and developmental progress. As a feminist and activist, Afridi challenged both the patriarchy and the violence. She courageously faced dangerous conditions to work in sectors as varied as social engineering, participatory development, disaster relief, gender mainstreaming, and poverty alleviation.
To assuage her family’s fears about her safety and honor Afridi always respected the religious and cultural boundaries of her deeply conservative society. By wearing a chador and full-face veil, and avoiding controversial programs like AIDS and family-planning awareness, Afridi and her sister managed to overcome traditional and cultural resistance to development, but they did not overcome the local militancy.
Afridi’s senseless and violent death could have been prevented if the government had provided her with adequate security. But in Pakistan, women who work for the improvement of their sisters’ plights never get the same protection as army generals and politicians. This, I’m afraid, is the real tragedy of my country.