January 23, 2014 00:00
By Rafia Zakaria
To the Taleban, female bodies are fit only for housework and for carrying babies - and now bombs
She said she is the sister of a local Taleban commander. Spozhmai, a young girl believed to be 10 years old, gave herself up to the Afghan police in the city of Lashkargah. She said her father and brother had forced her to put on the suicide vest and ordered her to blow herself up at a checkpoint in Helmand province.
Only the targets would be killed, her father had told her. Her brother Zahir gave more specific instructions. She was to approach the deputy commander at the checkpoint and ask for a ride to the neighbouring Kunar province. Then she was to blow up the explosive-laden vest she was wearing.
Spozhmai didn’t follow their instructions. Instead, she ran away and chose to ask for protection from the Afghan police. Taken into protective custody, she appealed to Afghan President Hamid Karzai to not send her back home.
“God did not make me to be a suicide bomber. I ask the president to put me in a good place,” she pleaded.
Her life with her family was like that of a slave. She was not allowed to learn to read or write. Instead she was kept indoors, and expected to cook and clean day and night. The Afghan authorities promised that they would not return the girl to her family unless tribal elders guaranteed her safety.
On the other side, the spokesperson of the Afghan Taleban has denied the group’s involvement in coercing the girl to engage in a suicide attack.
The girl’s story was nothing more than government propaganda, he said. “We never do this, especially with girls,” Qari Yousef Ahmadi told the media.
The last three words of his sentence were important. Girls, after all, were expected to be kept indoors and unschooled; the political act of martyrdom, something they sell as an ultimate act of heroism to their conscripts, is something too important to be wasted on the unholy and female.
These are the two visible ends of the argument. On one end, there are those who want to save girls like Spozhmai, whose story garners her far more attention than the ubiquitous abused girl who tries to run away from the cruelties of home and captivity.
On the other, there is the Taleban, for whom the idea of a girls’ school is foreign and imperialist. All signs of female education – and even the barest possibility of a female presence beyond the home – must be obliterated, order the jihadists.
The details of Spozhmai’s story present a third reality. The mercenary benefits that the Taleban and their affiliated groups attach to those that volunteer for suicide bombings are an important denominator here.
In the hardscrabble economy of this area, where war is the past, the present and the future, a few thousand rupees can make the difference between disaster and survival for a family.
A son sacrificed to a suicide bombing means losing a lifetime’s earnings in exchange for a one-time payment from the Taleban. Enter daughters, whose future represents nothing but losses and debts for the family. Slipping a daughter instead of a son into a suicide vest thus presents the opportunity to maximise the yield from the transaction of terror. A girl blown to pieces minimises losses, leaves behind the “valuable” boys and allows for the survival of the family in whose servitude she lives.
The calculations are dark. But so are the prospects of girls who have not blown themselves up yet.
In the tribal areas of Pakistan and in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, thousands of schools have been bombed in the past several years as the Taleban encroach on the coattails of the US pullout.
In the few weeks of 2014, three girls’ schools have already been bombed. In Charsadda, explosives were lobbed over the wall to wreck the main building. In Landi Kotal, armed men planted bombs in the empty rooms of Said Akbar Kali Girls School, their explosions tearing apart the silence and destroying all intentions of education. A few days later, bombs destroyed the Government Girls Primary School located in the grounds of the Huwed Police Station in Bannu.
None of the bombers has been apprehended, and there is no likelihood that any will be. The songs to female education in Pakistan, so resounding in the years of international aid agencies and urban activism, do not echo in these school-less regions. These lands are stuck between the Western hypocrisy of building schools to mask their military-strategic imperatives, and the Taleban’s rabid insistence on sacrificing girls at the altar of imagined Islamic authenticity.
The phenomenon of the girl bomber exposes the vacuity of each side’s mantras. In the land of the Taleban, both schools and girls are planted with bombs. The buildings of one lie mangled; the bodies of the other are reduced to just that – only bodies – their tasks to carry the burdens of others, babies and now bombs.