First appeared in the Washington Examiner
An international outcry greeted Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai’s decision to approve a new family law that sanctions marital rape for the Shia minority in Afghanistan.
The law is currently under review, but news coming out of Nimroz province-a sparsely populated desert province on the border between Iran and Pakistan-reminds that, far from being an outlier, such human- rights abuses plague the region, particularly in areas where the Afghan government or a foreign presence is absent.
Consider the recent tragic story of 19-year-old Gul Pecha and her boyfriend, 21-year-old Abdul Aziz, who planned to escape their village to marry. They were captured in Nimroz and executed by a Taliban firing squad.
Across the border from Nimroz, in the Swat valley in Pakistan, such public executions and other brutal punishments are common. Last month, footage captured via a mobile phone showed a 17-year-old girl viciously beaten in public for the crime of speaking to a non-relative male.
While these gruesome practices have caused international uproar and headlines, they have overshadowed the bigger story: Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari recently signed a regulation formally imposing Shariah law on Swat as part of a “peace” deal.
This means that these brutal practices are likely to become even more commonplace. Once again, women’s rights, and human rights, took the back seat on the negotiation table.
The Taliban have not needed Zardari’s official sanctioning to reign supreme over the area. In the Swat Valley, they already regulate family and personal affairs according to the strictest interpretation of the Shariah law while terrorizing an impoverished and destitute local population that cannot fight back. As one minister in the Pakistani provincial government summarily put it: “Swat is a place of hell.”
This “legal” system practiced by the Taliban in Swat permits death sentences for violations such as refusing to wear the head scarf. The Taliban can also prosecute women who have been raped, enforce arranged underage marriage to militants, and require male relative escorts at all times. They have barred women from leaving their homes or even walking on the streets.
In January of this year, the Taliban made good on their word and closed most of the girls’ schools in Swat, forcing home most of the last 40,000 female Pakistani students who were still going to school. According to The Washington Times, approximately 120,000 female students were enrolled in schools three years ago in the Swat Valley, which has a population of around 1.8 million.
The death of literacy and jobs in Swat for girls and women is less headline-grabbing than the brutal execution of the young couple in Nimroz or the public beating of the young teenager. But this death will prove incredibly devastating in the long run, as women become less and less able to participate in society.
Soon enough, the world’s media should be able to write a eulogy on moderation-indeed moderation will be the Taliban’s next victim in Swat and one the West should be particularly wary of.
It is not difficult to predict women’s future in the Swat Valley. One only needs to look at how women were treated in Afghanistan in the 1990s when the Taliban ruled. During that time, religious police ordered households to blacken their windows so women would not be visible from the outside. Women were whipped for having non-covered ankles. Those women accused of having sex outside marriage were publicly stoned.
This period of Taliban rule has not ended, it has just moved south.
The Swat Valley is nowadays referred to as the “Valley of Death.” Once, it was common to see women in town’s market places; now it is common to witness public beatings, executions, and headless bodies. There is no state authority or civil society. And Asif Zardari effectively just gave his government’s endorsement of these practices. It’s time for the international community to renew its outrage.
Ana Carcani Rold is a Visiting Fellow for the Independent Women’s Forum and the Editor-in-Chief of The Diplomatic Courier.