Ethnic Violence in Pakistan: Men Are Dying, But Women Are the Victims

What Women Really Think
Feb. 10 2011 12:51 PM

Ethnic Violence in Pakistan: Men Are Dying, But Women Are the Victims

Until he was murdered last month, Rashid was a young, unmarried factory worker who lived with his mother and siblings in a cramped two-room house  in Orangi Town, a  sprawling neighborhood in Karachi, Pakistan, that’s  home to Asia’s largest slums. When I first met Rashid’s mother, her swollen eyes stared at me from behind wire-rimmed glasses. Her tears had all dried up because here in Orangi Town, death has become so commonplace that children don’t even interrupt their street cricket matches to accommodate funeral processions.

Such events have occurred with increasing frequency in the new year, thanks to a flare-up of the long-simmering tensions between Pakistan’s two dominant ethnic groups, the Pashto-speaking Pashtuns and the Urdu-speaking Muhajirs. In the last five weeks, Karachi has been swept up in a wave of cross-ethnic killings so violent that parts of the city have become "no go" areas. More than half of these murders have occurred in and around Orangi Town, which has high populations of both Pashtuns and Muhajirs.

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The majority of the victims in these ethnically motivated killings are men. But in reality, it’s the women who suffer the most. Take Rashid’s family, for example. Rashid, a Muhajir, was slaughtered in the early hours of Jan. 15 when bandits in the Pashtun area of Orangi Town stopped a bus, checked the passengers’ identity cards, and shot anyone who didn’t sound or look like a Pashtun . It was a new low even in the context of Karachi’s newly aggressive culture of violence: Eight unarmed passengers died in the tragedy.

Sometimes, women die simply because they happen to be present when men are being targeted-as happened to a 6-year-old girl who died in the bus attack. But they often suffer in ways that are more indirect, though no less devastating. Rashid’s death has had dire consequences for all the women in his life. He had a fiancé who may now never get married-or, at least, not to a groom of much standing-because a broken engagement is taboo, even when one partner dies. Rashid’s sister, meanwhile, was completely dependent on her brother for her dowry; without a handsome endowment, she may not be able to obtain a good match. That would be disastrous because she’d never be able to get a job on her own, which means a life of crushing poverty. Finally, Rashid’s mother was hoping to use her son’s salary to buy a cramped house somewhere else in the city, to escape the growing violence. Without Rashid’s earnings to ease them out of Orangi, his younger siblings may suffer the same fate he did.

When I was leaving Rashid’s house, I met a young teacher who worked at a Muhajir school. She told me that the solution, in her eyes, was to educate the younger generation-particularly by allowing Pashtun and Muhajir women to teach in each others’ schools. She said she had even secretly befriended some Pashtun women who agreed with her.

But as in so many other poor neigborhoods in Pakistan, a woman’s voice-even if it is one of reason-is rarely paid much heed. In the north of the country, Pashtuns still settle family disputes with a Kalashnikov, and if a woman loses a husband or a father in the process, she has no choice but to bear a future she was not given the right to choose. Similar situations are replicated all around Pakistan-in southern Punjab, Balochistan, and interior Sindh. While the Pakistani code of propriety demands that females are almost never thrust directly in the face of violence, they end up become the silent victims in a war they did not choose.

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