KARACHI, Feb 23 (IPS) - The ceasefire agreement reached by the provincial government in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Taliban on Feb.16, involving implementation of shariah (Islamic law), is being seen as a setback for women's rights in the area bordering Afghanistan.
Going by what the Taliban have in mind for women in Swat, the worries are well placed. Women are already not allowed to work except in totally segregated environments as the Taliban considers it ''un-Islamic for a woman's voice to be heard in public''.
Under the accord, the Taliban have demanded Nizam-e-Adal (Islamic Justice System) regulation to be enforced in the Malakand division of the NWFP comprising the districts of Swat, Dir and Chitral.
"Women are likely to come under greater pressure and their tribulations will certainly increase," said I.A. Rehman, director of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
However, Muslim Khan, spokesperson for the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP), insists that ''women will benefit the most from the enforcement of the shariah''.
"We want to give women their rightful place in Islam," Khan told IPS. "Women are not supposed to work in factories, or even work in fields. That is a man's work and we will not allow them to shrug off their responsibility."
Ibrash Pasha of Khwendo Kor, an organisation working for the empowerment of women in Dir, has just one question: "Has anyone consulted the women on whether they are happy with this decision?" He has demanded that a referendum be held to decide the issue.
Over the past two years, the valley of Swat, 160 km from Islamabad, has been under the control of the militants belonging to the TTP, defying the over 20,000 Pakistan army troops deployed there as part of the U.S.-led war on terror in neighbouring Afghanistan.
Washington fears that the peace accord and enforcement of shariah laws in Malakand could facilitate the movement of al-Qaeda and Taliban in an area which is known to have become sanctuary for militant groups.
The ruling Awami National Party (ANP) has defended the accord on the grounds that it will improve law and order in the former princely state which acceded to Pakistan in 1969.
"People want simple and quick justice, at their doorstep, which they had when the Wali (ruler) of Swat ruled," said Bushra Gohar, a member of the ANP, speaking with IPS over telephone from Swat. "The decision needs to be seen in its historical perspective."
"We have proof to show how effective our courts were," said Khan. "In every village, in Swat, we have appointed one or two religious leaders who resolve people's conflicts in the light of Islam. Nearly 75 percent of the cases pertain to women's right to property, divorce and consent of a woman in marriage."
But if the courts are to provide justice, then they must try the militants and the security forces, for the atrocities committed in the last two years, said Pasha. "I doubt if that will happen. In the past two years, some 3,000 local people have been killed.
Pasha also doubts if the women's right to property, as given in the shariah, will be upheld. "Will the courts try the majority of men who take this right away?"
In 1993, during the government of the late Benazir Bhutto, a demand was made for speedier justice. This was reiterated in 1999, during the regime of President Pervez Musharraf. But implementation of secular laws in Pakistan's tribal areas has been notoriously difficult.
The new accord awaits a final nod from President Asif Ali Zardari who has demanded that the Taliban lay down their arms first.
The TTP, for its part, has demanded that the security forces leave Swat. "We want the 16 or so check posts set up by the security forces to be closed down. The Taliban will do the same," Khan said. The TTP has also asked for a general amnesty for themselves.
For the past two years the TTP has been enforcing its own radical brand of Islam on the people of Swat, swiftly and severely punishing anyone who disobeyed.
In Afghanistan, during Taliban rule there from 1996 to 2001, women were not allowed to work or leave their homes unless enveloped in a burqa, or accompanied by a male member of the family and this could now be the fate of Swat. Female education has already been banned and over a hundred schools, most of them girls' schools, demolished.
To show they meant business, the Taliban shot dead a woman councilor who spoke against the Taliban and beheaded a local dancer. Asked if they were ashamed of such atrocities committed against women, Khan said: "We needed to teach women a lesson."
For fear of being persecuted, women's voices remained unheard, leaving the Taliban to continue to narrow down women's right to mobility.
With the signing of the accord, however, educational institutions are being allowed to reopen.
"From Feb. 23 students of Swat, both girls and boys, will happily return to their schools or what is left of them," said Ziauddin Yusufzai, spokesperson of the Private Schools Association, talking with IPS from Swat on the weekend.
Yusufzai said the past two years have seen a steady Talibanisation of the area of a ''kind that was found in Afghanistan between 1999 to 2001''.
"They left no stone unturned to destroy the rich cultural diversity of the Pakhtuns (also Pashtoons) and enforced their code of life upon us which was not necessarily Islamic," said Yusufzai.
The girls can resume their studies till the Taliban get the curriculum overhauled, taking advice from the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), said Khan. CII is a constitutional body that advises the legislature on whether or not a certain law is repugnant to Islam.
For now, the local people wait with bated breath to see which way the wind blows.
"I'm just waiting and observing to see what will happen next. It's still too soon to say anything. The presence of the Taliban is here now as it was before," said Sher Mohammad Khan, chairman of the now defunct Swat peace committee.
"Till they [Taliban] give up arms, the people of Swat will remain insecure," he said, talking with IPS over phone from Swat.
Feryal Ali-Gauhar, economist, novelist, filmmaker and women's rights activist has questioned the legitimacy of the accord.
"The fact that the institution of the jirga [tribal council] excludes women from all decision-making belies its undemocratic nature,'' Ali-Gauhar said. ''This, in itself, suggests that women shall not be consulted in the process of accessing justice either before or after the imposition of shariah,'' she said.
What Ali-Gauhar finds particularly distressing are the many contradictions between shariah and the customary law in the north-western regions.
"How shall the qazis [shariah magistrates] renounce their own code of honour when it comes to issues of a woman's inheritance or choice in the matter of marriage or divorce? What happens when a woman is widowed? Will she be able to refuse the customary practice of being married to her deceased husband's brother?''
Ali-Gauhar was also concerned over such barbaric customs as 'tor' in which a woman must be killed for perceived transgressions of the moral order. The area is also known for the prevalence of 'swara' a custom in which young girls are given away to men in dispute settlement.
''What about women's mobility which is part of the rights enshrined in Islam, that a woman is free to receive an education and to participate productively in society? Will not the imposition of shariah tear asunder the fabric of Pakhtun society where women are largely confined and supposedly 'protected' in order to retain the 'honour' of the men in the family?" she demanded to know.
Read more from Inter Press Service.