Monday, August 25, 2014

Beneath the Veil

The streets are busy. People bustling to and fro, here and there browsing, bargaining, buying, selling. Stalls of sweets, samosas, spices, woven baskets, clothes stores, mechanics, bike repair stores, paan shops, phone stores, barbers and more. All filled with people, but one thing was missing; the women. The streets are for the man. Occasionally a burqa will pass by on a rickshaw with a couple of children of her lap and then she disappears and leaves the men to roam once again.

Bannu is a playground for men, where women remain only visitors on the streets. Situated near the Afghan border and now home to more than one million people seeking refuge there after the Pakistani military began its operation in the mountains nearby to evict the Taliban, this city holds conservative and sometimes fundamentalist religious ideas that are deeply ingrained in the culture.

Driving 6 hours to Bannu from Islamabad just as the trees began to replace the houses, so too were there less and less colourful traditional clothes worn by the women, called shalwar kameez. Instead the women became fewer and fewer and those that were on the streets wore the shuttlecock burqa, named so by the locals due to its resemblance of the shuttlecock used in badminton.

I counted 20-30 women out of the hundreds of men whilst observing the streets for 3 hours behind the tinted glass windows of a van protected by a ‘police’ man carrying an AK-47. I remained always under the watchful eye of my hosts, concerned for my safety in this conservative society.

So after seeing all these women walking around in burqas in the hot climate of Bannu not only was I curious to try it for myself, but also it was a necessary precaution to detract attention from myself as a female foreigner or as a woman in general.

It is 45C outside, and under the thick cloak of the burqa it is 50C. The heavy cloth envelopes you in a hot chamber where only the small gridded holes at the top for your eyes supply the ventilation. The cloth is a similar thickness to that of a curtain and creates a stuffy and suffocating environment inside. Not only is breathing hard, but walking and navigating your steps around the mud, pot holes and people is dangerous. 

I had my disguise so now I could properly blend into the surroundings as I walked the streets. Wrong. Heads still turned and eyes still followed as I walked down the street. They seemed to be able to tell that I was an imposture by the way that I walked and held myself even under the burqa. That and as I found out, women just don’t go into the streets. The presence of a woman in the most popular sweets store in town would turn heads regardless of whether she was a foreigner or not.

For the local women, it is what they are used to. The burqa is a reality and a norm that is engrained in their culture. They wear the burqa with elegance that this garment does not deserve. Many women have worn the burqa since puberty and some children of 7 years old I saw dragging their burqas along the dusty ground.

This was a world so different to that of home. So different from my world where you can walk into a grocery store wearing bikinis and a sarong if you need to. Unlike the shalwar kameez that is modest and yet gives women respect, the burqa is just a cloth that removes the identity of the women to strangers in the streets. It makes them appear as the ghosts that they are in this conservative society. But it is something that is so ingrained in the culture and society that if a woman in Bannu does not wear the burqa the blame is placed on her husband or the man who is looking after her, saying they are not looking after the woman properly.

In the presence of men the women all huddle together in a corner of the room and remain silent. Some wear the full burqa and others pull it but still wear a scarf to cover their face, except for their eyes. They only speak when spoken to, and even then their voices are muffled. The eyes, the windows to these women, still remain downcast avoiding attention. But when the men leave the room the women relax and expose their faces showing friendly smiles, fair skin, brilliant complexions with captivating eyes ranging from an incredible light green to deep browns all ethnic mixes of Afghan and Pashtun. They warm up to you straight away embracing you and accepting you as family, radiating incredible energy. That is until the men return back to the room, the burqas are back on and the women shrink into the background once again.

Despite common belief the burqa is not related to Islam at all, it has just been adopted by many radical Muslims and some fundamentalists at times force women to wear the burqa. And this is the case in Bannu.

Bannu also has a reputation for being the homosexual hub of Pakistan. Some quite reputable men with good jobs talked openly about it as if it was an odd accepted norm in this city, where normally is not in Pakistan. And, well, this does not really surprise me when you hide women from a society.

But still these are my observations and opinions. Some women who have been bought up wearing this are more comfortable underneath it. It is something that is so deeply entrenched in this particular culture. Whilst it is so difficult to imagine growing up in a society like this, it is norm for many women where wearing a burqa is just as normal as wearing a hat when you go outside. 

Photo credit Marloes Thijs

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

War Against Rape

You are only three years old, yet you have a fractured leg, a false eye and the sight of a man with a beard traumatises you and gives you panic attacks. You will live the rest of your life with the prospects of never getting married or starting your own family due to your severely damaged uterus leaving you unable to conceive children.

This is the case of Mariam.

Mariam was only three years old when she was sexually abused by her close family relative, Kamran. She was taken from her home and kept at her brother-in-law Kamran’s house who was a respected religious man in the community. She was kept in the house and was continuously sexually abused by Kamran who also pushed her down a hill and gouged out one of her eyes with a pair of scissors.

In the judgement, the court found there was not enough evidence to accuse Kamran of being guilty, and the matter was settled out by monetary compensation of 25,000rupees which is equivalent to only $250USD.

It is cases like these that the Non-Governmental-Organisation War Against Rape (WAR) helps in Karachi in Pakistan.

Located conveniently right across from my apartment I was eager to start work the morning after I landed in Karachi. I arrived, exhausted, hot, hungry, yet excited to start working on this project and meeting the team inside who greeted me with welcoming smiles and AC!

We arrive in the office and sit down to a collection of newspapers, reviewing the reported articles relating to sexual abuse; “Four women raped in Khairpur to protest in Karachi”; “Woman gang-raped in Multan”; “Trainee nurse raped, burnt to death”; “Three minor boys raped”; ”Rape, kidnap case record missing, court told”; “Man held for raping step-daughter”; “18 month old girl assaulted”; “University lecturer gang-raped”; “Woman gang raped, hanged from tree in Layyah”; “Three cops face ire over rape victim’s suicide”; “Five year old raped by candy vendor.”

Our fingertips turned black from the ink of the pages as our hearts turned cold from the articles. Most of the articles did not make the headlines, they were merely a small article overshadowed by the large advertisements beside them.

It is a small work space filled with people who are passionate about what they are doing. Across the walls are posters encouraging women to “raise your voice against sexual abuse.” There is a chorus of keyboards being put to work and the gentle hum of overhead fans and AC keeping people happy.

War Against Rape (WAR) started in 1989 as a pressure group determined to promote the breaking of silence against rape and sexual violence. It is based in Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, in a society where robberies and violence are reported to the police, but not many cases of sexual abuse.The silence on sexual violence is manifested by fear. It is the least officially reported form of abuse, yet there are still thousands of cases each year. 

Sexual assault, although it is similar to all other crimes against humanity, is the only crime where the victim is thought to be responsible for the crimes against them. This suffocates the victims and forces them to fight against their self, their family and their society leading them to not want to report the incident for fear of being blamed. It’s not just the victim that is shamed in the society, the families often are ostracized in the community and sometimes have to relocate to different homes due to pressure. Sexual violence remains an issue of deep shame for women and their families.

In some areas of Pakistan women are treated as a man’s personal property and rape is used as a force of power and as a means of revenge to settle scores against men. In Pakistan more than half the rape cases remain unreported, unaccounted and un-prosecuted. Women in this society remain dependent on the male economically and emotionally and it is deeply entrenched in the fabric of cultural, socio-economic and political power relationships.

The first step for actually reporting your case as a victim, is a difficult task. A lack of trust and cooperation with the police, fear of humility and inadequate support for the survivor are the factors that contribute to the lack of cases being reported. Even when a victim plucks up the courage to report a case they are faced with ridicule and harassment from the police. The police often don’t file the reports and instead blame the victimised survivors. People across all towns and socio-economic backgrounds of Karachi have apprehension and distrust with the criminal justice system, especially distrust in the police. It is a society were corruption is high and ‘who you know’ is of high importance.

As it is such a contentious issue in society, this also means that the staff at WAR face constant security threats. The in house lawyer has received threats from the accused parties and was twice hit by the accused as well. There have also been threats to her made over the phone at the WAR centre, but without caller ID phones, or equipment able to record phone calls, or security cameras the threats were not able to be recorded to help obtain evidence against him. The organisation also lacks medical insurance for the staff, so if they receive threats or are hurt, like the lawyer WAR cannot provide help to the staff victims.

Let’s put this into perspective. After rape you feel victimised, helpless, abused, alone and ashamed. For those who do decide to report the case they are faced with days of reporting and harassment. They have to undergo a medical examination which is to be conducted by a female, of which there are only 6 in the whole of Karachi. For the whole of the 22 million people living in Karachi, this takes hours and sometimes days.

There needs to be an FIR (First Incident Report) filed in the police office, where the police are not supportive of sexual abuse victims. The women reporting are tormented, ridiculed and harassed to withdraw their statements and reports. If the report does go through, which is not always the case, there are then months of court lengthy court delays, inconsistent evidence and often harmful threats from the accused or his party. Even when the victim returns home they face embarrassment and ridicule from neighbours and families often end up moving areas, making it hard for WAR to locate the victims. No wonder an estimated 90% of cases go under reported.

So what can be done to help? The main problem is the stigma surrounding cases of sexual abuse. It is a taboo subject that goes unreported in most cases. Even when reported it carries the weight of humiliation on the victim. There needs to be more education to prevent cases of sexual abuse and the issue needs to be more discussed to raise the taboo of this devastating issue. WAR is working hard to raise awareness of this issue, to educate people on how to report, they are providing free counseling services to victims and families as well as free legal services, like Mariam’s case.

This stigmatised issue in society cannot remain unnoticed and unreported. Something needs to be done to help these women.

You can check out WAR for yourself to see the work they are doing in Karachi.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Rickshaw Rhythm

He handles the rickshaw with passion and rhythm. 
In tune with the sounds of the engine he smoothly switches between the gears with well-practiced, swift hand gestures almost like a dance. His driving is aggressive, yet he remains smiling and calm. He uses the horn as if it is his right to free speech and it is his contribution to the world of chaos around him. 

Diligently he waits in the rickshaw for us slow foreigners to return back. Sometimes lying on his back gazing at the stars, perched on a wall nearby watching the world go by or eyes closed listening to music in his own world. 
Always remaining patient and loyal. He navigates the road with ease showing that he knows these roads as well as the back of his hand. Swerving amongst traffic, amongst pot holes, pedestrians, beggars and stray dogs he chooses the smoothest route for us passengers in the back.
An unassuming man more in tune with this city than anyone else.
He is the essence of Karachi.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Viewing things from above

In a place where you stand out like a sore thumb, like Karachi, it can often be a little difficult to really absorb the atmosphere and everything around you in a natural setting where people’s attention and everyday activities are often interrupted at your expense. I love to then watch for some time, the goings on of the world below me as I sit and watch from a balcony above, trying to understand the world of chaos below. 

Karachi ticks to its own rhythm. Laughter erupts as a bus rounds the corner a little too fast causing the passengers sitting on top to get a nasty collision with the low hanging branches of a tree. They emerge on the other side laughing and ripping the torn branches from their faces, sharing smiles amongst strangers.

Illegal street vendors watch the street day by day as they lounge on the couches they are trying to sell to passers-by. A motorcycle tows behind him a beggar on his cart. A child skips a step as he carries a newly purchased balloon. An elderly man returns from the shops carrying a small parcel of food. Young boys turn their heads as a group of giggly girls ride by in a rickshaw.

The traffic moves about in chaos, yet still remains in ironic order. Families of six balance on motorcycles with ease and normality.  Rickshaws weave in and out of traffic as they whisk passengers about Karachi. Older men ride their bicycles, extending their legs and moving with comparative grace to those motor vehicles around them. 

Pedestrians dodge the chaos as they try to cross the street. Beggars approach cars whilst they are stopped trying to earn some money and appeal to the charity of others, all the while whilst watching the traffic to ensure they are not hit by traffic.

A woman below hangs out her washing on the balcony, the patterns and vibrant colours shalwar kameez adding life to the grey apartment. A child takes large steps trying to keep up with his father as they hold hands and cross the road. Stray dogs walk timidly trying to avoid traffic whilst scrounging for food. Power lines twist and tangle hanging low creating a cluttered world above those below. Birds chirp and fly from the trees watching below for un-watched food.

And then just as I thought I was out of sight of those below a face looks up. A brilliant smile. A connection between two different worlds.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The situation in Bannu

Photo courtesy of The Nation
The situation in the town of Bannu is bleak. It is a city where temperatures are around 42 degrees, yet it is void of shady trees. There is a severe water shortage, lack of hygienic products and funds, yet there are over 1 million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) who have arrived since June seeking momentarily to call this place ‘home’.

These people have walked for miles from North Waziristan under the hot Pakistani sun to seek security in Bannu City and FR Bannu after a swift evacuation order was called as the Pakistani army launched its anti-terror operation in the North Waziristan mid-June. They grabbed what they could and walked or requested rides trying to leave as soon as possible, some were able to carry cash, some livestock and some only a few belongings. They left behind a place familiar to them and a place with memories to escape from the current operation against the terrorists residing in the North Waziristan called “Zarb-e-Azb.” 

Areas of Pakistan are traumatised, poor and are constantly threatened by extremism as it destabilises that region and the livelihoods of the citizens living there. For the One Million IDPs in Bannu now there are only three hospitals, all underequipped to deal with a population that has doubled since the influx of IDPs in mid-June. There is not enough shelter and diseases such as diahorrea, sun-stroke and dehydration are common amongst the IDPs, and children in particular. They need compassion and support from the Pakistani and world community.

Comprehensive Disaster Response Services (CDRS) is an organisation for disaster relief and has responded to multiple disasters in Pakistan providing much needed logistics and medical support services to affected communities, like Bannu. They provide quick and effective relief focusing on healthcare services employing personnel and volunteers who have extensive experience and in-depth understandings of the local conditions.

Myself and another intern from the Netherlands, Marloes, have been fortunate enough to be invited to volunteer in Bannu with CDRS in the next couple of weeks. It is an issue and organisation that we are both passionate about. We therefore ask our friends and family to help contribute some relief funds to these affected areas. The money will be put towards bottled water bottled water, hygiene kits (including toothbrushes, soap, hair comb, hand towels, feminine products), monetary donations, water coolers, hand fans, solar lights, and toys.

For more information or to make a donations please visit

Monday, July 21, 2014

The top floor apartment

Moving to another country, even if it is for a short period of time, is often a journey in itself, but try doing this in Pakistan. Surprise visits from the police looking for illegal Chinese immigrants and waking up to a strange man in the living room is never a comforting feeling.

Bodies are draped over the couches, lying helplessly and motionless under the fans. The fans swing from side offering each body momentary relief from the hot sticky 38C air that surrounds them. The whites and creams of the apartment are interrupted with colourful fabrics thrown across every bit of furniture trying to air them out as there is no water for laundry.

A lizard has claimed the kitchen of the apartment and has successfully set up his living space in the corner cupboard. His mere presence is enough to scare the tenants of the apartment from the room.

The small fridge bursts with half opened foods from each house mate, tempting those fasting for Ramadan and abandoned by those with upset stomachs. On the fridge is a piece of paper with the sacred ‘shower schedule’ scribbled onto it.

The apartment has a water shortage problem. This meant that the first weeks of housing 7 students in the hot apartment ended in frustrating half showers and full toilets as there was no longer water to flush. Water had to be rationed, including showers. Each week each person in the apartment is allowed two, two minute showers. Forget about washing your clothes, water is too precious. This makes it a little uncomfortable especially when there are regular power cuts meaning that the fans we so relied upon stop working.

It is a humble life in the apartment, but nothing compared to those living outside. I can’t help feeling guilty as I complain about the lack of AC or about not having enough water for showers or washing when thousands of people right outside my doorstep are homeless. Karachi is the largest city of Pakistan, one of the largest in the world and attracts people searching for jobs and opportunities, where not all are successful. A high heel steps over a homeless man’s leg as he sleeps on the side walk and paints a perfect picture of the unequal distribution of wealth that Karachi faces.

It never makes you feel comfortable, however, when two men with perfect English arrived at the apartment early one morning, claiming they were police.

“Do you have illegal Chinese immigrants in your apartment?”

They had a picture of a Chinese lady and a letter of invitation from her visa application, written in Chinese, that they had claimed was fake. We had two Chinese girls in the apartment, but none resembled the photo and none were illegal.

The police left without a fuss and left us wondering what had actually happened. According to locals, the men did not provide documentation so they were probably not police at all and instead were business men checking to see if we were running an international brothel upstairs.

But still the fact remains, as a foreigner you attract all types of attention.

The apartment blues add excitement to our lives. It is just another odd chapter in what it is like to stay in Karachi.