A glimpse at Duniya’s duniya [world]
By Malik Siraj Akbar
Twenty-nine-year old Duniya Aslam Khan perfectly narrates tribal society’s complicity in suppressing the women in a clannish set-up of Balochistan. The tale of this young lady, who presently works with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) sub office in Quetta as a media officer, lacks much charm for her counterparts living in the larger metropolitans of the country where restrictions on girls are not much severe. Yet, Duniya’s life epitomizes the state of women in the country’s largest but the most backward province where the existence per se is the biggest challenge a woman faces in her daily life.
Regularly, Duniya elegantly briefs the national and international media about the refugees’ issue in Balochistan. She is a confident presenter in front of a huge audience of the problems faced by the Afghan refugees languishing in Balochistan since 1979.
Born in an orthodox Pashtoon family in the Pak-Afghan border of Chaman, Duniya, the eldest child of her parents, was the first girl ever from her entire larger family to go to school. Hers was mainly a tribe where the birth of a female child is still considered a negative omen for the family. While the families often overtly regret the birth of a female child, they enthusiastically celebrate the birth of a male child whom they proudly describe as their ‘strength’ and ‘a hope for the future”. Besides denying education to their girls, Duniya’s family strictly expected the girls to observe the traditional Islamic hijab.
“The philosophy of hiding my face never impressed me from the very outset,” she told Daily Times, “why are women asked to hide their faces? Our faces are our identity, aren’t they? That is what we are and how we look like. Why should one be asked to cover up her face? This [covering the face] is what the criminals do? What is the crime of a girl when she is asked to hide her face?”
When Duniya’s educated father, Mohammad Aslam Khan, who served as a Superintendent in Customs, decided to enroll his daughter, the whole of his family opposed the decision saying that they saw no reason why a girl child should be sent to school.
“Girls in our surroundings are treated as inferior creatures. No one takes them seriously. A majority of the people think girls are naturally born to deal with household chores. Once they grow up, they will be asked to get married at an early age, occasionally without their consent involved. That is the life for majority of the women in our society: Get married and look after the household,” she said.
Initially, the relatives of Duniya objected to her going to school but did not take the “threat” very seriously until she graduated. However, trouble started for her when her whole family, including her father, refused to grant permission to their “adult girl” to go to a university. Her father pleaded cooperation from her saying that he could no longer bear the criticism of his tribesmen who had all agreed to stop her from getting education.
“I objected to my father’s stance saying that he had ‘spoiled’ me in the first place. Had I been denied education at the beginning, I would never demand the completion of my Masters degree. By then, I refused to spend a meaningless life like those of most men and women around me in the largely ignorant Balochistan province.”
Duniya recollects when an influential man from my family came to know about her ambition to go to a university for a Master’s degree, he warned her: “I will break your legs if you step inside a university.” Men from her family had literally agreed to ‘break her legs’ if she transgressed from family traditions and sought admission in the university.
“I insisted that if a university is ‘a wrong place’ for the girls to go to then it should equally be billed as ‘a wrong place’ for the boys. Therefore, we should shut all of the universities if they are truly wrong place.” As luck would have it, there was no one to pay heed to Duniya’s argument until she applied secretly for Faitama Jinnah Women University in Islamabad. Once she was admitted there, she managed to convince her father, not the tribe, to go alone to Islamabad for Masters.
She quotes her mother saying that for several months the people from her family didn’t know where she actually was. “Whenever our relatives visited our home and asked about me, my mom would either tell them that I was asleep or had gone to a friend’s home,” she recalled.
For a girl with a tribal background, the learning experience in Islamabad was phenomenal. For the first time, she acknowledged, she came to know that the world was much different and wider from what it appeared to her back in Balochistan. Girls in Islamabad, to her surprise, could not only get education without any restrictions but they could also do jobs of their choice.
“Back in Quetta, a girl, like me, was so much bound by tribal restrictions that one couldn’t even go to a shop if one urgently needed to purchase a pencil. All girls are absolutely dependent on their younger siblings. The hostel experience in Islamabad negated the much older idea inculcated in our minds that life for a girl is impossible without being dependent on a man,” she says with a smile.
She finds it ironic that a woman is almost always expected to be accompanied by a male family member. “ Isn’t it funny when you see a girl being escorted by her six-year old brother who happens to be her ‘guardian’ and ‘ protector’,” she questioned.
Duniya is perturbed by the unnecessary restrictions imposed on the women in Balochistan. In addition, the larger society, engaged in perpetual ‘moral policing’, endeavors utmost to discourage the educated working women. “When men cannot compete with women then they resort to their character assassination. Most men claim to be the protectors of the women when they prevent them from going to school, college or doing a job. In fact, they are spoiling them. Instead of teaching our women how to fight in the battleground, the men are asking our women how to run from the ground,” she gripes.
In the tribal set-up of Balochistan, women who work in the offices are often billed from within as ‘shameless’ or girls with ‘lose character’. Duniya herself has not been spared by her own family members when it came to such oft-repeated criticism. She says she could never forget the day when one day her father came home and cried just like a kid. The reason: “One of my close family members had accused me of disrupting the family ‘honor’ because of working with male colleagues in the office.”
“I face such experiences on daily basis. Each time, I think of quitting my job. I wonder why my parents have to suffer because of me. Every day, I have to justify every working woman before the people who are opposed to women’s jobs,” she added. Duniya, however, refuses to surrender. “If I give up, patriarchy, feudalism and tribalism will be the winners. But I want the women of Balochistan to win against this system.”