“We won’t have any candles at night, so hold hands,” Khurshid called to the kids. Today, it was a drill. She stood on a stool, the only furniture on the family’s verandah. Her sisters, her brothers, her classmates, and other neighborhood children covered the thin mats carpeting the room. Khurshid, only 7 years old, instructed the children with authority. They couldn’t afford mistakes when this was no game.
“When our mothers tell us to get on our knees, remember what this ground feels like. You’ll know it, so you won’t fall. Just crawl,” she explained. “Tuck your heads into your laps, hands over your neck. This will keep you safe if something falls on you from above, but if you keep quiet, no one will know we are there.”
Instead of splaying on the ground and stretching out their short, youthful limbs, each child crouched into balls so that their little bodies took up the littlest space. “It will be uncomfortable, but don’t cry. We are all doing this, and when we crawl out in the morning, we can stretch on the grass in the park all day.”
This spirited girl, the 7-year-old leader ready to protect the nation, took the responsibility to train the children, to try to save every life in Qissa Khawani Bazaar, her neighborhood. Khurshid trained the children to sneak to the trenches when the air raid sirens alarmed at night. So far, it had been every night. The children, Khurshid included, knew very little about why their neighborhood was under attack. They heard their parents saying war, but the children didn’t know it stretched far beyond their Peshawar neighborhood. Every day Khurshid watched her father cry and shout with her uncle as the news wires read over the radio about the war that she didn’t understand. Pakistan was falling apart. Khurshid’s father came home each day from work as if one finger then a toe then one hand, one foot, one arm, and one leg had been sawed from his body.
That’s what made this war so hard. So many Muslims had struggled as the British prepared to leave the country back in 1947. They supported their Congress-party leaders, especially Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who created an Islamic nation where Muslims would have voice and freedom but would also welcome any religion or race as citizens. When Pakistan’s boundary lines took form in 1947, Pakistan stretched from the Bay of Bengal to the Arabian Sea, save for the stretch of India that split East and West Pakistan. Even with Jinnah’s untimely death one year later from a sickness he had hidden for years during the independence fight, the two parts of Pakistan worked, even fended off India in a war in 1965. The two parts worked until 1972.
Only six days had passed since East Pakistan declared war when West Pakistan’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), led by Yahya Khan, refused to relinquish power to the democratically elected Awami League. After war against India and several military coups since independence, Yahya Khan, in an attempt to restore a semblance of democracy in Pakistan, called for democratic elections in 1970. The main players in the election enjoyed support in the two different parts of Pakistan. The Awami League won the election, but the PPP stayed in command. East Pakistan revolted and declared a war of liberation against West Pakistan. With India offering military assistance to East Pakistan, the battle would be brutal. Normal life in Pakistan ended for a time.
In typical day-to-day life, Baji, Khurshid’s older sister, would enter Shahwali Qattal, the local park. She called for Khurshid, Azam, and Islam. It was the perfect time in the evening to be in the park: the elder men of the neighborhood sat on benches discussing the newspaper, three women in chadors walked the perimeter and gossiped about their husbands, and the boys played tag while Khurshid, Farrah, and Nazli pretended as teacher and students. Now, instead, at 6 p.m., the gate to the house locked with everyone inside, and the gate at one end near Shahwali Qattal and the other end at Misgaran Bazaar shut until the morning. The children were never quite tired enough to go home, which meant giggles and cries, footsteps and clapping, as the children grew restless and hungry inside a dark house after curfew. Khurshid wasn’t scared, but when the sky blackened for the night, she knew that the sirens sounded even louder.
Since the bombings began, Khurshid wore a different type of pajama night after night. Instead of a long gown, she slept in the salwar kameez she wore to play in all day, with a pair of socks and laces slipped by her pillow to grab at the sirens’ sound. She tried not to wear her favorite salwar kameez, as she watched all her other clothes hold stains from the mud in the fossa. The morning after an air raid, her mother would sit on the roof washing her children’s garments from a night underground, scrubbing and scrubbing even though the saturated brown water would surely dye the little shirts and pants for good. She watched too as the bright colors her mother wore fade to dingy, pale hues.
Khurshid’s socks reached almost to her knees. The laces meant for her school shoes now secured the top of her socks tightly around the flowing fabric of her salwar tucked inside to protect her legs. No bugs or snakes could crawl against her legs in this uniform; she had to trade in her school uniform for this new look since they couldn’t go to school during the war. With this makeshift protection, she was safe from bites and scratches down in the trenches; she just had to accept the mud and water that would soak through to her skin.
“Hold hands, we’re going to the fossa. Remember, no crying, we are strong!”
Her mother carried baby Shazia, Baji carried Sohail, and Khurshid whispered harshly with orders to the other children to pull on their socks, tuck their pant legs, and tie the strings like she had taught them.
Parruna Not Fit for a Girl
Khurshid imagined her father would have called her a nuisance — that is if he ever spoke to his children like human beings, especially his daughters. Khurshid wore a fury on her face near him; she knew she couldn’t speak out about how he treated her mother. Or Baji, Shazia, and even her brothers Azam, Islam, and Sohail, for that matter. So, if she had to keep silent she would be loud about everything else.
Khurshid’s father didn’t control his anger when he came home. He said he was tired of a bad economy and corrupt governments. His business deal had gone sour, and his partner was sending threats to kidnap him. Khurshid’s mother corralled her children on the rooftop, scooting them up the stairs quickly so they wouldn’t hear their father list one-by-one all his complaints about the house and the family, and wouldn’t see his balled fists ready to punch. He didn’t hide his depression, which turned to anger and a slap on Khurshid’s mother’s cheek. The children couldn’t go in the room next to his, so instead Khurshid entertained her siblings with stories and dramas on the roof, even though she heard from the top of the stairwell her mother offer her father kava and try to usher him to his room.
On those nights, Khurshid’s temples throbbed with rage when she saw the red cheeks and bruises on her mother’s face at dinner. Her tall, slim frame was rich with features of a Khyber Pakhtunkhwa woman. Her brown hair braided and knotted against her head, her blue eyes shone no matter the lighting of the room, and her light skin was smooth and tight over her bones. Khurshid loved to look at her mother. She wished she could look more like her and Baji but she knew she wouldn’t — and she wouldn’t act like them. She’ll put up a struggle for what she wants to do. She’ll go to school. She’ll speak out for her rights. Her voice will be loud.
Khurshid knew the difference between her mother’s light complexion and the dark stains of black and blue on her mother’s neck and cheeks. Her mother wouldn’t answer her questions. Khurshid asked one night, “Why do you let him do that?”
“Love and respect him. He is your father, but he’s my husband. He’s my headache, not yours.”
Khurshid watched as her sister Baji was made her mother’s apprentice, and denied a formal education. She never noticed her sister complain. But Khurshid did. She begged her mother to ask Khurshid’s father for permission to continue her schooling past the fifth class. She was 10 years old, and she thought she still needed her mother to be her middleman to her father. In a way, her mother always had been for her children. But when Khurshid asked her to defend her education, she refused. Luckily, one word Khurshid never quite learned, or at least pretended not to, was “no”. She would need to learn courage to speak to her father.
Marching forward, Khurshid confronted her father for the first time. He said he would allow her to go to school.
With school, Khurshid found a daily interval of time for almost complete freedom from her father and from Peshawar’s male order of the world outside her home. During school hours, Khurshid did anything the teachers would allow the students to do. She acted in plays that she mostly directed, gave impassioned speeches in front of the students, and danced hypnotically to Sufi music. Khurshid made high marks and good friends. Like Mooni.
Khurshid loved to escape to Mooni’s house near her own in Qissa Khawani Bazaar, but usually, the girls ended up enraptured by the girl’s father, Chacha (uncle) Gama. Khurshid absorbed everything he said. He was political, like Khurshid’s father, but he didn’t ignore her as the latter did. She felt like he wanted her to understand Pakistan, to understand her rights, and to take action. He had books tucked in every shelf of the old house, a beautiful house with old windows and doors and old archways and light. He would hand the girls pictures of movement leaders: Gandhiji, Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah,2 and others. He explained the struggle of Pakistan with India, Pakistan with Bangladesh, Pakistan with Islam. When before, Khurshid only remembered the weeping of her father during the war, she started to understand what it had meant for so many Pakistani people.
Chacha Gama had supported Pakistan’s movement for freedom, like Khurshid’s father and uncles had. When East Pakistan formed, he opened a factory there. For years, the business yielded profit and would probably still be there if the war never happened. But when it became Bangladesh, Chacha Gama returned to his home in Peshawar. The profits from the factory offered his family a decent home, and he opened a small business and took to political activism. He was a fair businessman and an inkalabi.He led labor and peace movements and wanted his workers employed in just conditions.
Khurshid saw her father and Chacha Gama talk politics in the hujra (a place where local men sit together to discuss issues, seek advice, make decisions, and celebrate). She would see her father light up at the chance to discuss the issues of the government with the men sitting near him, and, from her vantage point in another room, Chacha Gama spoke the loudest and the calmest. Her father never spoke a harsh word about him and there was a bond, maybe friendship between the men — respect in the least.
Khurshid and Mooni would talk about the speeches Khurshid presented at school, the performances she held on stage, and the campaigns she would run for the students. Chacha Gama must have overheard them reading one of Khurshid’s poems, because he asked her to speak at a rally about women’s and children’s roles in bringing peace. Just 10 years old and knowing that there were limits to what her father would allow, she refused.
“If you want to do this, Khurshid, I will speak to your father,” he explained.
“I want, but he’ll say no,” she answered.
He approached her father, and as he did with school, he relented.
With permission came rules. Khurshid could go to the meeting and give her speech but then immediately had to return home. She would be completely covered, head to toe in a chador, save for her eyes. Her father insisted on one of her mother’s parruna. If she disobeyed these rules in any way, he threatened, she would never go back to school.
Chacha Gama fully intended to comply with Khurshid’s father, but he withheld just enough to keep him ignorant of the danger of such rallies. On the way he warned Khurshid, “If the police come, listen to them and obey. I will be with you. They might take us to the jail. Don’t say anything. They will only take you there and then release you. They never keep the women. You will be released and safe.”
A sea of men crowded the front of the platform in Chowk Yaadgar, the Square of Remembrance, and at least 500 others flowed into a crowd. They were common men, employees from Chacha Gama’s business, laborers in local factories, drivers of taxis and rickshaws, and other members of the movement. During Zia-al-Haq’s rule, women stayed away from public meetings and rallies, and in Peshawar, the men typically banned their wives, daughters, mothers, and sisters from participating in politics. That’s why Chacha Gama wanted a young girl to give a speech and read her poetry of secularism and freedom. Mooni stood off stage with some of their other friends, the only girls allowed at the meeting.
Khurshid didn’t trip walking on the stage, but only from pure luck. Her mother’s plain parruna dragged at her feet as she walked and draped around her ankles when she stood at the microphone. The sleeves devoured her hands and slipped from her shoulders. She saw women in the streets in burqas and thought they looked like walking tents. Even though hers was a chador, she felt like she wore a tent big enough to fit her whole family. Khurshid would lift one arm high to let the sleeve slip down and bunch near her elbow. The parruna folded into so many creases that even still, her wrists weren’t exposed but at least she could see her paper.
“I ask my brothers, all the big people — I will not advise you. This is just my little opinion to share with you. I want to recognize that the girls are also a part of making peace. I want to be, and I am, also part of this movement.”
“You should be proud of your daughter. She is a born leader,” Chacha Gama said.
“Thank you,” her father replied.
“Give her opportunities,” he instructed. Khurshid noticed her father’s face had a new expression. His eyes seemed to glitter just a little, and his usual furrowed brow and pursed lips, burdened by business or politics, relaxed for a moment to almost offer a smile.
“Phir milenge, inshallah. We will meet again, God willing. Khuda Hafiz.” Chacha Gama left, giving Khurshid a pat on the head and a smile full of love.
“I let you give this speech one time. Never again,” Khurshid’s father concluded. She heard him but understood that his face told her something very different: maybe her father could change.
Jumping the Fence in Chadors
Khurshid’s mother said no, but her father said yes. He instructed them to go to the school and collect the admissions paperwork. Khurshid was accepted to Frontier College.
Everyone in the family thought he had gone mad to let a daughter gain so much education. What did she need beyond the eighth class? Women in Pakistan were destined for marriage and children, not degrees and careers. Her brother cursed and shouted at their father the night he decided Khurshid could go.
Perhaps the family reacted with such shock because Khurshid’s father hadn’t always been agreeable to her education. He knew that she had held back many times from speaking out against him over the years, in the bad times — the bad decisions he made, the money he lost, and the way he treated his wife. These were new times though. He and his son had a little perfume shop around the corner, and he made good sales. Now he could afford to send even a daughter to university.
He knew her spirit: a learner and a leader. It was her habit to tutor the neighborhood children and her siblings alongside her own schoolwork. She joined all the clubs and was elected president of every group, demanding changes from her teachers and principals. Her fiery energy was from him.
“You can go, but promise me you will not get involved in anything but your studies. Do not bring shame on the family,” her father demanded. “Don’t step away from our culture. You will go to school and study and come home and study.”
“Yes, Father, I promise,” Khurshid agreed. She intended to keep that promise.
From Islamabad, the only road that leads to Peshawar is GT Road. The Grand Trunk Road, the famed trade route across Asia, now a major motorway connecting many cities along the way. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), the province that holds Peshawar, its largest city, has so many beautiful things to see, but many people never get to enjoy them because of the region’s security crisis.
GT Road welcomes travelers and provides the beam to balance some of Peshawar’s most important buildings on either side of the road. Traffic along it is heavy — people in Peshawar are busy. Mornings start early, near 4 a.m., when many Muslim men wake and head to the mosques for prayers. The women stay inside the house and pray there, then begin breakfast for the family and prepare for the day ahead.
Men drive their motorcycles to work; children walk to school; youth head to college; some women take a taxi to their offices while others go to market, always covered in a chador. Buses stop along GT Road, cars honk as an auto rickshaw cuts them off at a side street. Trucks hauling goods keep a straight line through the city. On one side of the road is Lady Reading Hospital, then just past comes the beautiful and foreboding Qila Balizar. Across from there, the gates of Frontier College.
Frontier College for Girls had a large gate and a wall encircling the campus. The administrative buildings were cordoned to a corner of the estate, with another tall wall blocking the girls from the gaze of the men who worked as administrators, drivers, and the gardener. The students usually accessed the campus through a smaller gate from Chowkiyad Ghar, a shortcut through a quiet street.
All the teachers and principals and clerks were women. Frontier College was like a haven in a city where men ruled the streets and the home and the bedroom. Women outside of the walls of Frontier College had no power. They had no face; they were covered head to toe with their burqas and chadors. But in the college, the women could pull back their scarves in front of each other if they wanted. No men were around to see it.
The principal’s office opened out onto a lawn leading to the academic buildings. Elsewhere on the campus, a hostel housed the girls from other districts. It provided security to the girls coming from outside Peshawar; this was one of the few colleges in KP for women in the 1980s.
The curriculum for students in Frontier College required four compulsory classes — Urdu, Islamiad, Pakistan Studies, and English — and three elective courses. Khurshid loved poetry and history; she enrolled in Islamic history and Urdu Advanced. She wanted to learn about the poets and the heroes of Pakistan and Islam. She took psychology; she had seen so much in her first 16 years, and she wanted to understand where anger comes from, why anger can’t always be controlled, and how to change peoples’ minds.
Khurshid knew that the purpose of enrolling at Frontier College was to study, but she wanted more. She wanted to celebrate the poetry she read for class and to bring the girls of the college together to discuss and have fun, so she organized bazm-e-adad, poetry recitations and dramas. She joined the lawn tennis team and traveled to other colleges in Peshawar for competitions. She participated in the National Cadet Corps classes every morning, training in self-defense and arms. On campus, she was a stranger to no one.
Khurshid met Binish and Aruj, two older students, through one of the bazm-e-adad performances. She began to sit with them in the campus canteen. Quickly, she realized they had much more to say than just the typical college gossip. Despite the ban on political groups on campus under the reign of Zia-al-Haq,they managed to organize. The girls in Frontier College, silenced in the streets, spoke up within the campus walls.
They made posters with messages reading, “We want freedom. Don’t keep silent.” They hung them on the notice boards, careful to affix the papers without drawing attention to their actions. Other girls came to know about Binish, Aruj, and Khurshid, and the group surrounding the cafeteria table grew larger, to 10 and 20 some days. The girls decided they wanted a leader in the group, to take their thoughts and opinions beyond anonymous posters. They elected Khurshid, as Binish and Aruj were about to take their final exams and earn their degrees.
But on the day of the exams, Binish and Aruj received termination letters from the principal, barring them from the exams. She had found out who the leaders were and targeted the older students as an example, believing the younger students would then abandon the secret political gatherings. The principal thought Khurshid would quit.
The day after the termination, Khurshid and six other girls from the group sat silently on the college lawn facing the principal’s office. They were armed only with a poster: “Let them sit.” The girls wanted Binish and Aruj to be able to take their exams and earn their degrees — otherwise, it was four years robbed from them. The group sat without saying a word for 20 minutes before going to class. When they had free hours, they returned to their silent protest. The next day, more girls sat facing the principal’s office. But for three days, the principal never stepped out of her office to speak to them. Students continued to walk by, though some stopped and pointed and talked, eventually joining the crowd. By the fourth day, Khurshid changed strategies.
She wouldn’t disturb class instruction and lectures, and the group would remain peaceful. But now they needed to raise their voices. Khurshid and the girls made more posters with their specific demands: to meet with the principal and get an explanation for the girls’ termination. When they all stood on the lawn to protest, the group cried, “V-I-C-T- O-R-Y, Victory, Victory is our cry!” A few teachers walked over the grass to ask the girls to stop, that their noise disturbed classes, but Khurshid refused. They could afford the interruption. And each day they only protested for a few minutes at a time.
Protest day five echoed four, but on six, the protest brought an unwelcome surprise. The group had grown massive, some 200 students standing on the lawn together. Khurshid noticed a row of women police standing on the verandahs to the left and right. The principal had refused to address the crowd and made no motion to consider any demands, but clearly to Khurshid, she had taken some action. Khurshid continued to call forth their rally cry, and periodically reminded the girls to stay peaceful.
She felt the group stir in the presence of police. Then, a pot smashed against the floor in front of the principal’s office, and a rock shattered a glass pane on the assistant principal’s door.
Khurshid tried to calm the group, but she didn’t know who threw the rock or why some girls thought it better to become violent. She decided to end the protest and disperse all the girls to class.
Later, Khurshid and her friends met along the road to the college, heading toward the gate. But it was closed. Usually the guard sat in a chair next to the open gate, but now he stood in front, taking names before letting the girls pass.
“You can’t go in,” he told the girls.
“Why not?” Khurshid asked.
“I have been instructed that you are not allowed,” he answered.
“It is our right to enter,” Khurshid protested. “This is our campus, and no one can tell us we are not welcome.”
Her friend walked along the gate, examining the bars closely. “This isn’t so tall. We can jump it,” she said. The guard shrugged, probably thinking that as long as he didn’t open the gate for them he was sticking to his orders. Khurshid’s friend lifted one foot up to a rung of the bars, grabbed the top, and heaved herself up. Straddling the gate at the top, she made her way over to the other side. Khurshid followed suit; she collected the base of her chador, exposing her shoes and ankle-length pants, and tossed the bundle of fabric over one shoulder. She jumped over and opened the gate from the other side for her other friends. The guard turned away.
In a classroom before the lecture began, the girls huddled near Khurshid, discussing what action to take.
“We stick together,” Khurshid instructed. “They will try to separate us and break us, but let’s insist that we only talk as a group.”
The teacher walked in. “The principal wants to see you girls, one at a time.”
“No,” Khurshid answered. “We will meet her together. Why does she want us to come alone?” The girls chose to comply, one at a time, and go to the principal’s office. Khurshid first.
The room was crowded, but Khurshid only noticed two people: her father and her brother sat side-by-side on a sofa opposite the principal’s desk. Khurshid felt sick.
“Sir, you need to sign this paper. It states that your daughter, Khurshid Bano, will not participate in any political activities on the campus again. If she does, she will be kicked out of the college, and a letter will be sent to all other colleges barring her admission,” the principal threatened. “But, sir, your daughter is a very bright student. She has impeccable marks, but she cannot do these things.”
Her father discussed nothing, simply signed the paper. Khurshid was not asked any questions. When the paper was signed, her father and brother stood and walked toward her, grabbing her arm and leading her out the gate to an auto rickshaw waiting on the road. They rode in silence, but she was sure the sound of her drumming heart and panicked thoughts was audible. At home and through the door, her brother’s screams began, berating Khurshid for shaming the family. Her mother came from the kitchen, confused and worried; her husband never arrived home this early.
“Keep your daughter in her room. Don’t let her come out, don’t let her leave this house,” her father instructed. Turning to Khurshid, he flatly said, “Your college is finished. It’s time for your nika.”
Khurshid was devastated. She had come so far and fought so hard for her education, and now she had thrown it away. She knew that standing up for her friends was right; they deserved justice. But she had made a promise to her father that she broke. He may not have always shown her love, at least outwardly, but he had given her freedom. Now, he would arrange her nika — send her off to her new husband’s family.
Her Red and Green Bridal Dress
Khurshid allowed the girls in the classroom 10 minutes to read the document. They read a text many of their mothers had never, and would never, read. Yet every girl in the room and their mothers and Khurshid were bound or would be bound by a document like this — their nikahnama. Even girls just one year older or maybe younger were already locked into it.
In Pakistan’s Islamic tradition, the nikahnama is the first step in the marriage process. It serves as a tangible symbol of a boy and girl’s intended marriage, and once signed by both parties, it becomes nearly impossible for a woman to get out of it even before the rukhsati, or marriage festivities. Khurshid remembered the day she signed her nikahnama, and she didn’t read a single line because she felt it a punishment.
When the 10 minutes lapsed, Khurshid asked the girls to speak about what they read and understood. All the girls in the room were 14 years old; they were lucky to be in school. They came from educated families that allowed them to pursue an education so they would attract a rich groom who could offer more to the family in exchange. Many girls their age outside of Peshawar district might already be married, or at least their nikahnama was complete for when they were ripe for birthing children.
Khurshid was happy in her marriage now, even though her father forced her into it. It took her years to forgive herself for breaking the promise to her father that got her into her nikahnama. She just wished that girls had a choice, and by the law they did. Pakistan had many significant laws to protect women, but women don’t know how to use them. Men use them to punish, but laws are meant to protect individuals. So many girls didn’t know their rights, and Khurshid planned to change that.
Khurshid sat alone in her room. It was a strange feeling knowing that all the men in the hujra were talking about her. Even more strange, Khurshid knew that a man sitting in the hujra with her father would be the one she would live with for the rest of her life. Yet she had never met him, and wouldn’t for another few months.
The plan: Her father would arrange her nikahnama, she would study for and sit for her exams, then be married into a new family. Her brother would be thrilled — he hadn’t forgiven her for the shame she brought the family with her actions at Frontier College and wanted her far away from the family. Khurshid began to cry; she could forgive him for the awful things he said to her and about her to the family. She didn’t want to leave her family or her college. She never thought it would come to this. Someone knocked on the door.
Khurshid’s uncle stood with two sheets of paper. “Mian Zahid Shah, son of Mian Firoz Shah, you accept him?” he asked. Khurshid swallowed. With the back of her hand she wiped her face, not that her uncle and the other elders standing behind him could see it beneath her dupatta.If she had to do this — and she did — Khurshid would stand strong and composed.
She reached for the papers. “No, you don’t read these. Your father secured it. It isn’t your business, just say your part,” he commanded Khurshid. Taken aback, Khurshid recited what her mother taught her. “Yes, I accept this man, Mian Zahid Shah, son of Mian Firoz Shah.” She signed her name in a sharp script. She wouldn’t show weakness on this paper, even though she felt like her world was shattered. The men shuffled away from her door back to the hujra.
Five minutes later, another knock. “Mian Zahid Shah, son of Mian Firoz Shah, you accept him?” her uncle repeated. “Yes, I accept this man, Mian Zahid Shah, son of Mian Firoz Shah,” Khurshid repeated and signed her name. The men shuffled away, and five minutes later returned. “Mian Zahid Shah, son of Mian Firoz Shah, you accept him?” “Yes, I accept this man, Mian Zahid Shah, son of Mian Firoz Shah,” Khurshid said for the third and last time.
Three male witnesses for her side, three male witnesses for the groom’s side, their fathers, and Mian sat in the hujra. Mian signed three times, Khurshid’s father signed three times. Now, Khurshid had a husband in a room she couldn’t go inside of because she was a woman.
She took off her dupatta and reached for a book. She had exams to study for and to pass. In a few hours, Khurshid would join the others for dinner and collect her bridal suit and gold jewelry from her in-laws. Her father would hand over the groom’s clothes for the wedding and a gold ring and sweets for the groom’s family. Until then, Khurshid would use every minute to study; she only had a few months left to be a student and might never get permission to be one again.
The first girl to raise her hand said, “All of this seems pretty fair, that he must pay his wife money each month, that his family gives her jewelry, that her family gives him clothes and money. Her family buys furniture and crockery. They are all set to start a new life together.” The second girl, “Why is this section marked out?” “What does ‘nil’ mean?” asked another.
Smart girls, Khurshid thought. This is why she held these seminars.
“Girls,” Khurshid began. “This is my nikahnama. I never read it for many years after my marriage. My husband is a good man, and I am happy with four beautiful children. But I am not happy that this is my nikahnama.”
Many girls’ schools in Peshawar allowed Khurshid to come for special lectures to teach about women’s rights and reproductive health. She wanted them to know they have a right to decide their marriage, to see their proposed grooms, and to ensure security through the nikahnama.
Khurshid explained to the girls what it meant when the elder men nullified the second shik in her nikahnama. The second shik grants the right to divorce. The man has the right at any time to divorce the wife, and the nikahnama ensures that the wife receives due compensation to care for any children and to survive as a single woman. A woman can also receive the right to divorce the husband, called khula. If a woman takes this option, she loses the compensation listed in the nikahnama, but she has the right to choose a divorce if her marriage isn’t suitable — the Prophet, peace be upon him, established these ideas as halaal in the Quran. Islam is a religion of justice and equality. The Prophet wanted to protect every person equally.
Her father crossed out her right to khula. Many women lost this right because men said that talking about divorce during the nikahnama was like dooming the marriage. Why talk about something so bad when making something so good? With that reasoning, the men scratched through it and, just to emphasize, wrote “NIL” next to it.
“‘Nil’ means that the shik is removed. It might sound simple, but that one word removes your right. No man is allowed to take away your right like that. I want you all to learn this: read your nikahnama, stand up for your right to see the man you will marry, and make the decision yourself,” Khurshid instructed the girls.
She understood this as only the first lesson for the girls about their future marriages. She had so much to tell these girls, advice that no one ever tried to tell her. They knew the traditions of the rukhsati. Would anyone explain to them what happened that night? Would they feel shame that they bled, or would their marriages end there because they didn’t bleed enough? Khurshid would teach them, even if the teachers cringed in the back of the room.
Khurshid sat in the room with all the other women. She turned to Baji and asked her to scratch her nose. Baji laughed a little, and Khurshid smiled. She couldn’t use her hands while the two mehendi artists painted her hands and arms with intricate lines and swirls, making flowers and leaves and grids to ornament her skin for the days ahead. So Baji scratched Khurshid’s nose, and then she added a tug on Khurshid’s ear just to tease and tickle her. The design would be beautiful, but Khurshid was so tired of sitting.
Months ago, Khurshid imagined this day and thought it was the end for her. Every time she thought of her rukhsati, she would start to cry softly until she remembered how strong she always could be. She would wipe her eyes and buckle back down to study. Now, even though she knew what she lost in her nikahnama, she accepted that today was her marriage. She could choose to be sad, or she could revel in this time with her family. Her mother and sisters all sat with her, and Khurshid’s cousins and friends and neighborhood women and family from Punjab came to celebrate. For today, she would laugh with Baji, watch her friends dance to her favorite Sufi music, eat sweets cooked by her mother, and gift bangles to all the girls at the ceremony.
The girls and women left together, but Khurshid stayed behind at her house. The others headed to the groom’s home to henna the groom’s hands. There they celebrated for hours with the men. The women sat in one room of the house, and the men danced and sang and discussed in the hujra. Khurshid missed all these festivities. In her home, Khurshid eyed the beautiful red and green dress that her husband’s family brought her. Her mother returned late with the others and stayed up all night with Khurshid’s sisters to prepare for the next day. Khurshid fell asleep for the last time as a daughter in her father’s house.
The next day, the 150 guests arrived for the baratat the special wedding grounds her family rented for the rukhsati. Khurshid wore the red and green dress and covered her face with the matching dupatta. Khurshid took her marriage as a new challenge. Slowly, slowly, one step at a time, Khurshid would feel happy and build a life she wanted.
The dinner marked the marriage, and three hours later, the groom’s family took leave with Khurshid in tow. Mian Zahid seemed like a kind man. At the dinner he looked fit and handsome in his white salwar suit. Her father had told her before that Mian was educated and a teacher. Maybe he would be a good match for her.
That night, he was kind to Khurshid. She wore her traditional red Pakhtun suit into the room where she found red bridal sheets with a floral design and a white sheet peeking out from beneath. Mian wore the white suit with a black vest on top to meet her in the bedroom. He woke early and left the room to go to the mosque for prayer. Khurshid would learn that he was devout and prayed five times a day. He left the room quietly on this morning, but Khurshid was awake; years later, Khurshid wouldn’t wake when he left for prayers. He would return home and rouse her to pray; she would pray and go back to rest; and by 7 in the morning, he would wake her fully to start the day. Always tender in waking her, never angry and shouting.
This morning, when he left the room, Khurshid climbed out of bed to change and prepare for the valima.Her in-laws planned a lunch for all the guests to celebrate Khurshid and Mian’s first night together. But Khurshid was worried. She needed to clean the bed before any woman came in to help her with her dress. The proof was on the white bed sheet, the blood invisible on the red patterned sheet of his family’s linens. She felt so guilty; her first night with her new family and she ruined their sheets. Her mother had taught her how to remove all types of stains, so maybe she could fix this later. For now, she crumpled the sheet and stuffed it into the dresser.
Mian’s cousin, an elder woman, entered Khurshid’s room first. She didn’t say much to Khurshid, but she seemed to have lost something in their room. She pulled back the red floral sheet, kneeled on the floor and looked under the bed, entered the washroom and searched around, and finally opened the dresser. The old woman grabbed the white sheet. Khurshid cringed. The elder cousin left the room, and moments later Khurshid heard happy chatter from the women outside her door. Then the women entered to ready Khurshid for lunch. Khurshid had felt happy during mehendi, through the barat, and even last night alone with Mian. Now she felt furious.
She understood all the warnings her mother said to her growing up. “No jumping. Don’t run,” her mother would say. Khurshid played lawn tennis at Frontier College. Her mother always worried, and Khurshid thought she was overly concerned about an injury. Today, Khurshid understood. The blood proved that Khurshid was perfect, untouched by another man. But Khurshid knew that the blood meant nothing. Some things happen, girls run and play, everybody is different, no blood does not mean a characterless girl.
None of the girls in the classroom knew about this tradition. Khurshid wanted the girls to understand the injustice in this. She hoped the girls would talk to their mothers and help them learn so that on the girl’s marriage night, whether blood happens or not, their mothers will defend them. If these girls told their mothers, and if their mothers told other women, with time — slowly, slowly — this would no longer be a tradition at all.
After the valima, Khurshid began her life as a wife, preparing for her and her husband to move to Nowshera district with his father. Five days after her marriage night, Mian received a call from Khurshid’s father, asking him for permission to visit and pick up Khurshid to bring back to his house for a night. Mian agreed; this is the tradition of the vooma. Her father arrived the next day, and as Khurshid walked to the door in her burqa, he asked Mian to come with his family to her father’s house tomorrow to fetch Khurshid and have dinner there. This officially marked the last time that Khurshid would visit her father’s home to stay for a night; she was not a daughter now but a wife. The morning after, they loaded into a car and drove to Nowshera, Khurshid’s new home.
Married Women Wear Shuttlecock Burqas
When Khurshid arrived to her husband’s home in Nowshera, her father-in-law and one mother-in-law lived there. Mian’s brothers and their wives had separate rooms on the second floor of the house, where Mian and Khurshid now lived together in the third room. One brother-in-law already had two children. Ten people in all lived in the large house with a large field.
Khurshid’s father-in-law was well regarded in Nowshera. During the harvests, he hired men and women from the village to help cut, thresh, and winnow the wheat; they returned months later to sew the seeds. Men of status arrived every evening to the house to meet in the hujra and gossip and debate.
The wives in the house worked on a rotation. One week, one cooked all the food for lunch and dinner, another washed all the dishes, and another cleaned the house. Each task had its challenges. Cooking for so many people meant time sweating over the stove, and when men came to meet in the hujra or when travelers sought a bed for the night, she had even more mouths to feed. Washing the dishes meant staying up late with her hands in soapy water while everyone relaxed after dinner or prepared for bed. But cleaning the house was considered the hardest: sweeping the halls, the verandah, and the drawing room. The washrooms, the hujra, and the kitchen. Each woman tackled her own quarters that she shared with her husband and cooked him his breakfast. When Khurshid first moved in, washing the clothes was delegated to one woman each week, but once her sister-in-law’s children started in school, Khurshid’s mother-in-law instructed Khurshid — the youngest wife in the house — to wash her in-laws’ clothes, too.
The work was doable for Khurshid, and when she completed her duties for the day, she would go to her room and sit and read on her small sofa. But Khurshid wasn’t happy — she was bored. When she was young, she had chores to do each day, she had classes to study for, and she had students to tutor for a little extra money that she gave her mother. Now, she finished her housework and had no other responsibilities to tend. She didn’t tell her husband though; she wouldn’t complain and start a fuss. It might anger him, and then a commotion would start with her mother-in-law. She woke up, did her work, read books, and went to bed. Repeat.
But during the harvest, Khurshid sat with the women and helped picking, cleaning, and packing it, but she felt uneasy — these women were so thin and looked weak. One woman might arrive with six children: one child might have a pair of shoes on, but the others didn’t. Another might wear a sweater in the cool morning, but the other children didn’t. Another might have pants, but the other children didn’t. Khurshid would ask the women about their conditions, and while they threshed the wheat they talked about their sick or hungry children. She would try to teach them small things, explain issues of hygiene and find out what the women needed to improve their lives.
Mian found Khurshid staring at her book in the sitting room. Khurshid didn’t even notice him for almost five minutes.
“You haven’t turned a single page. What is wrong?” he asked. Khurshid was startled out of her thoughts. “What are you thinking about?” Mian asked. She looked up from the book; he was right. She still had her hand on page 30.
“You know I am not unhappy, but I have worries,” Khurshid began. “I spend my days with these women. Some of them are my age, but if you looked only at their wrinkled hands, you might think they are grandmothers. Their lives are so hard, and I don’t think they can support their children and husbands and selves. I wish I could help them.”
“What would you do?” he asked.
“I want to teach them how to read. I want to give them just a little power, so that if they need, they have a way. I want to teach them about health, and I want to see the little children start an education.”
“You want to teach?” he asked. “Then, why don’t you teach them?”
“But how? Where would I teach them?” Khurshid asked.
“You have never asked for anything from me,” Mian said. “You never complain, you never seem angry, you never ask me to buy you clothes. Let me give this to you. I will talk to my father, and the women and children can come in the afternoon to the house, sit outside the front door with you and learn.”
And Mian did it. Khurshid began to teach small groups of women basic things. How to write their names and sign their signatures. She taught them how to read. She explained the dangers of using dirty strips of cloth during their menses, lessons most women never heard as young girls or just had to ignore because they didn’t have the means or privacy to wash more.
The women began to speak up more during the classes in the yard. They asked more questions about their lives and their rights. Khurshid taught them about voting, and she told them about new laws that might hurt or help them. The group of women grew, and Khurshid witnessed these mothers and young girls become empowered. They might not have complete freedom, but they could stand up for themselves and find the resources they needed.
Not long after, Mian told Khurshid they had to move back to Peshawar. Khurshid never expected she would feel sad to leave Nowshera, but she was worried. Would the women continue to learn? When she met the group the next day, she told them about her move, and she asked them what to do. One older woman, a grandmother, spoke up. “Khurshid, beti, you have taught us. Let us be the teachers now. Trust us. And if we need you, we will call you.”
Khurshid hatched a plan with the women to make a committee that would protect the women. The women wouldn’t be able to meet as often for classes, but they could at least create a supportive and ready citizen committee of women. This group became the foundation and model for citizen committees all over Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. And every committee had Khurshid’s phone number at the ready.
Which Uniform to Wear Today
In their new house in Peshawar, Khurshid spent the day alone while her mother-in- law and husband went to teach. Her favorite time in the morning fell right after they left the house; when she had the house to herself, she could take the morning paper and read at her leisure. She sipped her cup of hot kava, the bottom of the pot after the others had drank, with enough time to skim the front page and catch up on the latest news first. After dishes and some daily household cleaning, she would settle in for longer, eyeing stories more closely. She didn’t miss a page in the paper, even the classifieds.
One morning, not searching for anything in particular, Khurshid stopped on a post for a telephone operator with Pakistan Telecommunications Company, Ltd. (PTCL). The eligible candidates could be male or female and had completed their metric education. She had long wanted a job and to go back to college, so she ripped out the ad and saved it for later.
After Khurshid spoke with Mian about the job and school, he took two days to deliberate with his mother before coming back with a yes.
Khurshid interviewed in April 1986 for one of four positions at the PTCL office in Khyber Bazaar. She sat in the room with some 50 other women; the male applicants were interviewed in a separate room. She interviewed before three men — PTCL’s divisional engineer, executive officer, and account officer — and they asked her general knowledge questions, just three, and dismissed her. “We’ll inform you with a letter,” they concluded.
She got the letter and the job.
Every day at 7 in the morning, Khurshid caught the bus, made a transfer, and walked a few paces to get to the PTCL office. The building shared a wall with the nursing hostels tucked next to the Lady Reading Hospital. The road outside of the office had a constant stream of traffic, but the walls of the old building safeguarded the air inside from the street noise.
In the room where Khurshid worked, 18 women sat before a long table, each with her own headset, directory book, and button to answer calls. At the end of the table, a smaller table accommodated two men, a supervisor and assistant engineer, to take complaints from callers and monitor the women’s work. With two men in the room, and workers coming in and out of the office all shift, the women had to remain covered in chadors while they thumbed the directories and avoided all the wires. The men who worked as operators were free to wear their buttoned shirts with sleeves, not dragging fabric over the table and knocking papers to the floor.
Khurshid worked the day shift, the busiest time at PTCL when all businesses and offices in Peshawar were open. On her first day, she entered that office with terror — so much noise! She couldn’t understand anything anyone said and could barely hear the caller in her headgear as all the women were answering phones. In three months though,
Khurshid had learned to manage it, and her co-workers regarded her with a mix of awe and confusion at her abilities. When she was pregnant with her first child, the women would joke, “Why even take maternity leave, Khurshid? Just have the baby here at the table and answer the next call!” She stayed on the job until Friday, went into labor on Saturday, and had her baby on Sunday.
At all times, operators had to be on the line in the PTCL office. Phone lines work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If an operator had to go to the washroom, he could signal to the supervisor and leave for a few minutes — he could do that. For women, taking washroom breaks took planning. In the entire building, no designated washrooms existed for women. If men were in the washroom, culture dictated that a woman could not enter. And women had to find a partner to guard the door when they did manage to find an empty bathroom. The two women would approach the door and call to see if men were inside. One would stay at the door and tell the men to wait so that the other could finish. All too often, women would approach the bathroom, call out and not hear anyone, only to walk inside to find a male coworker. And during their menses, they had to deal with hygiene while feeling the pressure of the line of men outside the door.
At lunch, the workers had 30 minutes to eat. In the common rooms, men could sit, gossip, and eat. The women had to remained covered, which meant dragging their sleeves in food, and if the women wore burqas, it was nearly ridiculous trying to eat. The common rooms felt owned by the men. If the women had their own common room, they could remove their chadors and eat and talk. The pregnant women could take a quick rest, and the women still nursing their babies could at least pump milk in a safe space and avoid the breast pain and leaks. There were no facilities for daycare or nurseries where the women operators could bring their new babies, go to work, and nurse them when needed. PTCL needed to make changes.
The women at the company had to band together in order to survive the office environment. The washroom partnerships and lunch groups gave them the chance to talk about problems in the workplace. They didn’t like the stares from men when the men walked passed their tables. Their supervisors made comments about their bodies and their husbands, teasing the women to go on dates or prove they were married.
Khurshid decided to speak up and approach the labor union leader. He acknowledged her requests — separate washrooms, a ladies’ common room, pick-and- drop transportation service, and anti-harassment rules — but did nothing about them.
Every worker at PTCL gave to the union. When an employee approached the accounts table every two weeks, the accountant handed over the wages and checked the employee’s name from the roster. Then, the employee shifted left at the table to pay the union fee of 10 rupees. Khurshid participated in the system, believed that the labor union would represent the workers, but after so many complaints and not a single change, she couldn’t support a union that didn’t support her.
The women met on the PTCL lawn one day during the lunch break. Khurshid told them that she had approached the union but that it refused to make changes.
“We all give our dues with every paycheck,” she explained. “If we contribute our dues, then we should expect that the union will protect our rights. I don’t feel protected. Do you?”
The women shook their heads, some even shouting no. “Let’s stop paying our union dues then,” Khurshid suggested. “Why should I give money to a union that won’t listen to me?”
“But we have to give the union dues. He sits there at the table expecting us to give,” one woman replied.
“Then don’t give,” Khurshid said. “He can’t force the money from my hand.”
“But they can fire us,” pointed out another woman.
“And if they do, I’ll make a fuss,” Khurshid threatened. “The media will enjoy a story of discrimination against women, and PTCL won’t like the negative publicity. Trust me, they won’t fire us.”
The next payday, the union leader held his hand out as he looked down to cross off Khurshid’s name. He realized she had already passed. “Khurshid, ma’am, your dues?” he asked.
“I’m not giving them until you give women a washroom,” she answered.
A bit dumbfounded, he shook his head. “Khurshid, why must you do this? You know it won’t help.”
“We’ll see,” she said.
She continued to work on getting other women to revoke their dues. Even though there weren’t many women at PTCL, they would make a statement. She also worked on some of the men who she knew would support the cause. As the union dues grew fewer and fewer each pay cycle, the union approached Khurshid to talk. After months, she had won the women a washroom and a common room. They began paying their dues again.
Now that Khurshid knew that men and women at the office would support her, she began to attend union meetings and speak up about other concerns in the workplace. She didn’t trust the union head. He took too much time to address the issues, and she saw how he interacted with the supervisors. His hands were in their pockets, profiting by telling the employees he would help and then taking money from the company and then saying changes weren’t possible. Khurshid made a strategy to shake up the union. When the next union elections arrived, her name went on the ballot.
Khurshid didn’t win that election, but the employees took notice. She thought that maybe the women in the office had been afraid to vote for her, fearing that the supervisors and current union head would check each ballot as it was submitted. Khurshid continued to raise issues about many situations in the office and had helped several women report cases of harassment. More men than she realized supported the women’s causes. And at the next election in 1988, Khurshid won — the first female labor union leader in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
When Khurshid battled the labor union at PTCL, she didn’t intend to keep her battle in the office. As a newly elected labor union leader, she enrolled in training courses for union leaders outside of KP. After she gave birth in 1997, Khurshid went to a course in Karachi for 10 days. She would go to the seminar and rush back to her room to nurse her daughter, then sprint to the next session and return to care for her baby. Khurshid wore the uniform of a wife, a mother, a PTCL employee, a labor union leader, and a community organizer.
Eventually Khurshid was selected as the general secretary for the Pakistan Workers Federation (PWF) women’s wing in KP. She traveled often to Islamabad for meetings and conferences, and she learned about the International Labour Organization and how to implement their mandates in her workplace. She joined committees and working groups in PWF to demand changes for women’s rights in the workplace. In a few years, Khurshid was appointed general secretary of the PWF women’s wing for all of Pakistan.
In 1999, an announcement came from PTCL seeking applicants for a promotional training program. Khurshid could now become a technician. Technicians at PTCL worked in a special room that protected the servers and wires. It was perhaps the most important room of the office. If anything went wrong there, the entire system would shut down, and no one in the City 3 area of Peshawar could make calls. The technicians activated new phone lines, cancelled old phone lines, dealt with billing set up. They had to file paperwork updating the numbers for the city.
“Technician is not a post for women,” Khurshid’s supervisor told her.
“And why not? You said union leader wasn’t a post for women either,” Khurshid fired back. And then she applied. Of 200 men accepted in the nine-month course, Khurshid was the only woman. The timing wasn’t perfect — she learned right after receiving her acceptance that she was pregnant with her second child, but she finished the course just in time to have the baby and return for the promotion.
In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Khurshid became the first woman to hold the position of technician in PTCL.
On Her Face is the Story: Da Hawwa Lur
She’s a woman wearing a fringed dupatta, a tuft of black hair peeking out across her forehead. She doesn’t look straight ahead; her head twists toward her right shoulder, exposing her bare neck. She looks like any young Pakhtun woman. But in the Da Hawwa Lur logo, written on this woman’s forehead, cheeks, and mouth are words like:
On a woman’s face is written the violence that happens every day in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Da Hawwa Lur, or Daughters of Eve, began one afternoon in 1994 at Khurshid’s house. That day, however, the group had no official name. Khurshid had simply invited the women from PTCL and the women in her family to sit together and talk about their problems. Soon, she invited the women’s group from Nowshera. This was Khurshid’s way. When the women came together, anyone could take a turn, and they could tell the seemingly tiny problems — a stain on their child’s school uniform they just couldn’t figure out how to treat — or unimaginable crimes — a husband’s fist on her cheek or a brother- in-law’s advances to rape her. The women that day talked about what they wished they could do for other women, and what it would take to see change.
Da Hawwa Lur therefore started in many places: in Khurshid’s home, in the women’s common room she eventually secured at PTCL, and within her own family. These groups are deep roots now, nourishing the branches of Da Hawwa Lur.
At PTCL, Khurshid had built close friendships with Suhana, Bina, and Aarifah. These women came to Khurshid to help and for help.
Suhana’s nika had been agreed upon with a man who abused her. She wanted a divorce, but he didn’t, and he had the court’s approval to block it. It took 12 years and many tears shed in Khurshid’s lap before Suhana finally won. She sought the advice of her co-workers every step of the way, and Khurshid and her friends tried to help. She remarried, but then the couple’s life changed. Her new husband began to beat her, and stopped working. So she left that marriage after one year and moved in with her sister and brother-in-law who supported her. She kept her job at PTCL, and supported Khurshid in Da Hawwa Lur.
Aarifah’s husband divorced her in Karachi after only two months of marriage, and when she returned to her family in Peshawar, they refused her. She lived in a working hostel, which was considered unfit for a proper woman. She fell in love with another man, but he had a wife and six children. Still, they married, she had children, and her life carried on. The first wife didn’t like her, but she had a place to live and still had her job with PTCL to support herself. Khurshid and her friends at work created a family for her now. Aarifah absorbed the violence she had suffered, but turned it into bold activism. She worked in the labor union and joined Da Hawwa Lur.
Bina lived alone in Peshawar. She had two other sisters who married and moved as far as Karachi, but she chose never to marry and she was never forced. She too worked at PTCL. While quiet at meetings, she had power in her writing and was dedicated to the work of the group. After finishing at PTCL in 2015, Bina put all her time into Da Hawwa Lur.
Shazia, Khurshid’s younger sister, married young and had two daughters. Unbeknownst to her husband, She helped Khurshid with tasks for Da Hawwa Lur. At the time, the group was still small. Eventually, Shazia’s husband learned about his wife’s — and by then his daughters’ involvement in the group — but he was open-minded. He trusted Khurshid when she told him to let his daughters go to college. Now, Khurshid’s nieces have studied in Frontier College, like their aunt before them, and are members of Da Hawwa Lur. With grown daughters, Shazia took on more responsibility with the organization, doing embroidery work from home for a small fee and volunteering to train women in the vocational skills centers around KP. She helped prepare new teachers to keep up with the growth of Da Hawwa Lur’s services.
Khurshid’s brother knew that his daughter Nindia, or Nini, sat with Khurshid during meetings with the women of Da Hawwa Lur. He wanted to arrange the nika for her when she was just 16 and about to start 10th class. Khurshid was infuriated and intervened, trying to convince her brother to wait until Nini finished her education. Instead, she was married into a family whose women were illiterate, and by the time she was 19 had two sons and a deep depression. Khurshid remained close with her, and in turn grew close to her husband Sorabh. He was reasonable and saw the hard work that Khurshid did and how her husband supported her to succeed. He knew the strong children they raised and the careers they maintained. Through her model and her convincing words, Khurshid was able to urge Sorabh to give his wife some freedom. She finished her metric exams and took a beautician course and opened her own salon. Nini has become a crucial member of Da Hawwa Lur, and was elected information secretary in 2015.
And Mooni. Of course, Khurshid’s childhood friend who watched her give her first public speech on labor rights and freedom, Mooni was there to help begin Da Hawwa Lur.
The group slowly expanded its reach to new districts and new neighborhoods. They let women know how to contact a woman from their group if they had trouble and needed help. They recruited volunteers, especially lawyers and doctors willing to offer their services. Khurshid found shelters for women, and teamed with other organizations with resources that could better help those who came to her in emergencies. She built vocational centers to give women options, helping them earn money for their children’s education. She coordinated the delivery of feminine products to the camps for the internally displaced. But it wasn’t just Khurshid. It was all those willing women of KP who became Da Hawwa Lur.
It wasn’t until nearly 20 years from those first meetings, however, that Khurshid registers the organization as Da Hawwa Lur in the government directory. By then she felt her work was under threat, with donors and funding agencies questioning her motives because it was not officially registered as an organization. She had always carefully documented her work and finances to hold herself accountable to the women she assisted, but she knew registering would also give her a layer of protection and a louder voice in civil society.
Da Hawwa Lur now consists of three separate governing bodies: General Body, Information Technology, and the Executive Body. The first constitutes all the women who work on behalf of or are supported by Da Hawwa Lur in KP’s 24 districts. The Information Technology team maintains the organization’s online presence while also trying to tap into a global network of women’s rights activists who can help a small but populous part of Pakistan. The Executive Body, made up of seven members, is elected every two years. Khurshid has served as CEO since registering the group, but she ensures the group is run democratically. If she’s voted out, she won’t mind — in the same way she brought new perspective to the labor union, she assumes someone will come along and do the same for Da Hawwa Lur.
Watching her little girl in a burqa felt so wrong. Khurshid washed and pressed her daughter’s full-sleeved shirts and chadors every week to wear to school; many months before she packed away the half-sleeves and sashes that little girls once donned to school. Khurshid still plaited Talia’s hair into two braids twisted up into loops and secured with ribbon, even though the school rules now required the chador to stay on all day. Everyone in the classroom was female, but the Taliban sent strict instructions that all girls wear full chadors. If not, the teachers and parents could count on their little girls being shot. The teachers and parents agreed their education must continue, especially in times like these. Talia, 7, fumbled her tiny covered body in position behind her father on his motorcycle.
The windows and all things in the house shouted. The windows cracked, creating partitioned panes with uneven borders. The photos of their parents, their babies, and their siblings hanging on the wall crashed to the floor. Khurshid dropped the teacup she held. Her husband and two youngest children had left seven minutes before to catch the school bus.
Within seconds Khurshid came to her senses, at least enough to know she had to find her family. She rushed out the door — she hadn’t had sense to slip on her shoes and grab her dupatta, but her children were more important than the rocks and glass she might step on or the modesty she betrayed without her cover.
People were crowding the streets shouting to understand what happened. Shopkeepers exited their stalls as Khurshid ran past screaming and crying. “Where are my children?” she shrieked. “What has happened? My babies, my husband! Where are they?” Khurshid collapsed on the ground in front of a shop.
Khurshid continued to sob and scream for her children. The crowd in the street noticed a plume of smoke and debris hovering over the streets nearby. “Get up!” Khurshid’s oldest son protested. “You don’t have a dupatta! What can you do here in the road? Get back to the house!” If you don’t stand up and get back inside, I will carry you!” Through an overflow of tears, Khurshid gritted her teeth, glared at her son, stood, and walked home.
Past the gate, behind the wall of her house and away from the view of men on the street, she collapsed in sobs again. Moments later, a motorcycle screeched at the house. Her panicked children rushed their mother, falling into Khurshid’s arms. Her husband entered and saw the pain in his wife. The bomb had struck an army check post along GT Road, near the High Court and PC Hotel. Mian and the children hadn’t been as close as Khurshid thought, but they had heard and seen the debris. When Khurshid approached the site later, there was only a huge crater remaining.fusion
When Khurshid wasn’t running to meetings for Da Hawwa Lur or committee gatherings in KP villages, she had time to go shop with her sister-in-law. Her brother and Bobby lived near Mina Bazaar, a popular market for women to go to. It was about a 20- minute walk. Mina Bazaar was always crowded. The fabric shops were some of the best to buy materials for dresses and suits. Bobby always wanted to go shopping with Khurshid. She loved to wander the stores in Mina Bazaar and spent as much time as Bobby wanted browsing bangles and silk patterns. Their cousin owned a corner stall in the market. Today, they stood next to a stall selling fresh fruits and then strolled along leisurely.
The clothes fluttered down from the sky, the air turned black, the shoppers stampeded on the road. Women burst from doors along the way, screaming for their husbands. The husbands fled their shops, watching their wares burn. Khurshid sobbed while Bobby coughed and grabbed her. “What can we do here, Khurshid? Run!” They followed the fleeing crowd.
At the moment of the blast in Mina Bazaar, Khurshid remembered the piercing sounds of bombs from months before. She remembered racing the streets barefoot in pursuit of her school-bound children. Today, she was covered in her chador and shoes, but saw the women burst out of doors without burqas, without dupattas, shrieking for their husbands and to understand what happened. She wanted to help them, to reach out and hug them, to let them stand there in tears, to shield them from the debris while standing in the streets screaming for an explanation. Her son had hid her behind a wall. These women deserved to yell and cry. In the end, nearly 300 people died in the blast in Mina Bazaar.
Powdered Hair and Rainbow-Stained Shirts
Her daughter had colors of blue and purple and green across her face. And red and orange and yellow powder smeared on her forehead. Shawana laughed as she thrust a handful of pink dust in her mother’s hair. Someone rushed from behind tossing blue into the air. And purple rained down on the crowd. Everyone ran around the street in a haze of colors, smiling and reveling in the mess of powder dyes. Khurshid and Shawana embraced to snap a quick picture together, then stashed the phone before someone coated it in colors.
This was the first time that Hindus had openly celebrated Holi in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. And more than Hindus celebrated that day: Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, all people.
With so much destruction and death happening in Peshawar under the Taliban, Khurshid decided that the people would still celebrate. Eid, Christmas, Diwali, Holi, Easter, Ramadan, any other holidays that people recognized. The celebrations would be open to people outside of the respective religion. The Hindu priests would welcome Muslims and Christians and Sikhs during puja ceremonies; and Hindus, Christians, and Sikhs would gather with Muslims for Iftar to break the Ramadan fast.
Khurshid knew that people in KP would be reluctant to join interreligious celebrations. The problem in KP was that sectarianism and terrorism permeated everyday life, and no one knew exactly who committed the killings, bombings, and threats. Of course they had ideas: groups claimed to commit the crimes in the name of religions, but the common people, the victims and survivors, knew their religions. Religion doesn’t call for violence. Through several interreligious dialogue meetings that Khurshid had carried out, in conjunction with all types of religious leaders, over many months, communities were learning that the religions in KP taught common values of peace and goodwill.
So Khurshid started with people from the meetings. She contacted groups outside of KP as well. She wanted youth from universities all over Pakistan to help her cause. If she could teach the youth, like her daughters Shawana and Talia and her sons Hambal and Hanzila, they would grow with a love and appreciation for all holidays and celebrations. Khurshid checked her calendars and convened with religious leaders in Peshawar. They supported her idea of interreligious celebrations, and they would start with Diwali in Peshawar.
Khurshid contacted a friend she knew with a big house in Peshawar. Near it was a Hindu mandir, or temple, so it would be a short walk for out-of-town guests. He agreed to let Khurshid use the space for a few days.
She envisioned a safe space for university students outside of Peshawar and KP to stay a night for Diwali, the festival of lights. With the help of other organizations in different cities,students from all around Pakistan — including Islamabad, Lahore, and Karachi — arrived in Peshawar. The house had two spacious floors, so the boys could stay on one and the girls on the other. Khurshid had gathered all the pillows and blankets from her house — her grandson, watching her empty the rooms of their plush wares, cried, “Mama! Where are you going?”
The civil society network that Da Hawwa Lur connected with to find the students helped arrange transportation to Peshawar. Khurshid easily found volunteers to cook meals at the house. After all, these were guests, and when guests arrived in someone’s home in Pakistan, they were served what they needed. Something about the spirit of celebration had made the community active participants in the planning. The people told their neighbors about Diwali and asked them to keep the peace. Khurshid called the police and told them not to worry about the crowd. Their intentions were peaceful, not riotous, so she asked the police to protect them from any attacks.
The evening came with people from the neighboring areas gathered to welcome the out-of-town worshipers. Together they made their way to the mandir. Though the Hindu temple was small, with the permission of the pujari (the Hindu priest), the people crowded inside to catch a glimpse of the ritual. The attendees were all given small candles to hold in hand. Around the walls of the temple, people stepped carefully to protect the beautiful candle-lit rangoli decorations, mandala patterns intricately designed with colored sand.
The pujari began the ceremony, lighting candles and lamps to symbolize the end of evil. He motioned to Shawana, Khurshid’s daughter, to join him to help during the puja, when he prayed and shared prasad, a gift given a worshiper at the temple as a symbol of their devotion and in return for their offering. He handed the sweet ladoo to her and marked a tilaq on her third eye, a space between her two eyes, a spiritual center.
Khurshid stood crying as Shawana beamed her smile to the crowd. Her beautiful daughter embodied the message she had hoped to convey of religions coming together. Boys in Sikh turbans, Christian priests in their collars, and Muslim women in burqas all participated — a momentous achievement to have pulled off an interreligious festival peacefully within the city of Peshawar.
Khurshid received an invitation from a Hindu activist, whom she had worked closely with in her dialogue sessions, to come and celebrate Holi — a Hindu holiday, also known as the festival of color, that rings in spring — in Nowshera. The Tourism Department was backing the celebration, a public display of support by the government for interreligious peace.
Holi usually takes two days to celebrate, but with the security problems in KP, the organizers condensed the events into one. For Holika Dahan, the puja ceremony before the revelry began, the participants gathered near the Hindu colony in Nowshera. A stage set up in the street toward the center of the area held the activist, secretaries from the Tourism Department, Khurshid, Shawana, and other civil society representatives from around KP. The Hindu activist and pujari offered a welcoming and prayer, and turned to Khurshid: “May I put this color on your daughter?” She smiled and nodded, and he smudged a pink streak across Shawana’s brow — Holi had begun.
With loud shrieks and laughter, Hindu girls and boys raced to the piles of colored powder on tables along the street. They pelted their neighbors with fistfuls of color. Khurshid rushed off stage with Shawana, and they ran toward Talia, Hambal, and Hanzila. Big clouds of color exploded in their faces; the games were on. Khurshid screamed when Hambal dropped a handful of yellow in her hair, and Talia’s infectious giggle vibrated as she and Shawana ganged up on Hanzila to coat him in purple and pink.
In the afternoon, the people tried to dust off some of the colors, and then feasted together in the clearing, sitting on blankets and still leaving remnants of colored powder.
Khurshid had to wash her family’s clothes from the festival many times. She knew they might never return to their original colors, but these stains came from joy and celebration, not wars and hiding like those nights in the fossa as a child. She wished her mother could see how Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was changing.
The Burning Shawl
Shawana brought the final dish of food into the room. Khurshid’s phone rang during dinner. She didn’t recognize the number, but answered anyway.
“Hello?” Khurshid began.
“Assalam alaykum, bibi,” greeted a woman’s voice. “Walaikum assalam. Who are you?” Khurshid responded.
“I’m calling from Nowshera on behalf of my sister, though she no longer lives in Nowshera. But she is here now,” the woman explained. “This situation is very critical. Her husband attacked her, like he often does, but this time with acid.”
“How did you find my number?” Khurshid didn’t want to sound cold and unwelcoming, but she’d received so many threats because of her work for women’s rights she needed to be careful.
“I called on your friend here. He told me to call you. He seemed afraid to take this case, but he said you would,” the woman answered.
“OK, give me all your information and your address. I will come tomorrow,” Khurshid replied. For Khurshid, these decisions came easy. A network of civil society organizations worked together to meet the needs of women in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Da Hawwa Lur was one of them. A single organization in KP cannot solve the myriad conflicts, injustices, and attacks alone. Khurshid had a reputation for handling difficult cases — while she cooperated with organizations and held a supreme value that teamwork is a must, if someone denied Khurshid her lawful demands, she would stubbornly fight until she won.
The next day in her office, Khurshid mulled over the trip she had to make. She would not back out, but she worried about the atmosphere of Nowshera. She used to live there and knew how conservatively religious it was. She could not travel there alone with one of the office girls but needed a man with a good reputation to help her access the community. She called her husband at work. “I want to go to Nowshera, if you are free,” she requested. Mian was a good man, and after 25 years of marriage, he fought for her fights, too. He agreed to drive her and another girl from her office. “In one hour, I am coming,” he said.
He knew the old building where the victim’s sister lived. He parked the car near the entrance, and Khurshid and her assistant entered the musty building. The stairway was so dark and the opening so thin. Made of wood, some stairs were ready to collapse. They arrived on the third floor where the victim’s sister stood by the door to welcome them inside.
Immediately, Khurshid was embraced by the victim’s crying mother. She calmed the mother as the sister led them into the room. Khurshid couldn’t touch anything without covering her hand in dust. The room was dark and there were children seated. There was a horrible smell. On a charpay, or bed, against the wall, Khurshid saw the slight figure covered in a blanket. From the side, the woman looked beautiful, young, maybe 30 years old.
The sister sat down on the edge of the charpay and raised the blanket. The moment the bands of the bed creaked with the sister’s added weight, Khurshid heard the victim groan. The sister gingerly peeled a white sheet off of the woman, who winced and cried out. One of the babies in the room began to cry. Khurshid could see the slow effort it took the sister to separate the sheet from the woman’s wet naked body.
The woman, nicknamed Babli, was soaked from feverish chills and open wounds. Khurshid saw every inch of the woman’s naked body. Half of her face, just barely to her eyes, her neck, across her breasts, half of her stomach, her pelvis and down one leg, the burns oozed and bled. By Khurshid’s estimation, 65 percent of Babli’s body was burned. When did this all happen? Khurshid wanted to know. Why was she in this room with open sores? She could see the remnants of cloth that stuck to Babli’s wounds, the threads of the sheet that congealed to her burns.
“Why have you waited 15 days?!” Khurshid asked.
Babli’s mother cried, “I did this to my daughter!” Babli was too weak to talk, the infection on her burns making her slip in and out of a restless unconsciousness. The sister began the story.
“It was common for Babli to come here after a big fight.” She handed Khurshid pictures of the man. He was handsome, smiling, wearing the modern styles of Peshawar, not the uniform of a village man. “Babli married him when she was 16 years old. Our father arranged.” Forced it, you mean, Khurshid thought. “He beat her early on. We never knew what provoked him to do it. Babli couldn’t think of anything she had done and would arrive here confused. He just would hit and shout suddenly.”
“Did he ever hurt the children?” Khurshid interrupted, peering over to the group of children seated near the charpay, the eldest child leaning toward Babli with a frightened stare.
“Never the children,” the sister assured. “He didn’t hurt them. Never.”
She touched another photo, hiding it from the sight of the children. “I took this a few years ago,” she explained. “This is when we thought the beatings reached their worst. We really thought that had to be the worst. He took the butt of a pistol and beat Babli across the face and head.” The picture showed a swollen face and bloody hair, not the beautiful woman in the bed in front of Khurshid. “That man threw Babli out of his house so many times, but he always called her back.” Khurshid had heard this story before; she remembered the violence her mother had met, though never as bad as Babli’s beatings. She had helped many women abused by their husbands. In a society that continued to try to silence women and seize their rights through religion and to maintain power, the men often turned to violence.
Babli turned her head to look toward the center of the room, in the direction of Khurshid even though she couldn’t open her eyes. They weren’t burned but her face was swollen. She wanted to speak, she wanted to tell her story, the horror. She sputtered slowly, “We moved from Nowshera when my husband got a new position near the city. We left the village and moved to a home in Paripura. Now we could send our four children to a fancy private school, not a cheap school but a school for a good education,” she boasted softly with a slight upturn of the corner of the unburned side of her mouth. “But my husband’s new status as a city man did not stop the abuse.”
The sister wiped Babli’s eye on the unburned side of her face. Khurshid didn’t know if the tears were from Babli crying or just a product of the burning sensation all over her body. Her sister picked up, “She continued to come home here in Nowshera after a brutal beating. Babli would cry for a separation from him, telling us she didn’t want to go back.” The sister wept at the memories.
“Why did you go back?” Khurshid asked.
“Every time, our parents hushed her and refused. ‘No, it’s honor. The people will gossip about us. It’s a family matter, OK. It will calm down.’ I always had a bad feeling, but I’m only a daughter, I couldn’t speak,” the sister choked.
Babli made a clicking noise so that Khurshid would look at her. In a whisper, she resumed her story. “This time, he called and apologized.”
The sister interrupted, “That should have been the first warning sign.”
“He called and told me to return home, the children needed me. He said he was so sorry and would never touch me like that again. I agreed to go home; he is my husband and my duty is to my children. When I entered our house in Paripura, he cooed at me, ‘I’m sorry. Next time, this won’t happen. Please make tea for me.’ I entered the kitchen and stood by the stove to wait for the water to boil. I felt the arm of my husband reach around my shoulders and chest. This time was different; here he was embracing me in the kitchen, offering the affection he hid from me all these years.” Babli’s mom began to gasp back her tears. She started to move the children to the verandah.
“It wasn’t a hug,” Babli said in a flat voice. “My husband’s grip tightened with one arm, as the other arm swung a bottle around in front of me. I tried to turn away, but the acid splashed down the side of my body. I screamed and cried, and then I saw my brother-in-law race through the door. I knew he would save me.” Babli paused, this time Khurshid knew she was crying. “‘One bottle more,’ he yelled at my husband. He emptied a second bottle of acid on my body. I thrashed out of the house, screaming for help.” Babli couldn’t remember much after this.
“I don’t understand,” Khurshid said. “How did she get here to Nowshera though?”
The sister had spoken to a woman at the hospital who helped Babli. “The way the woman saw it, when Babli fell out of her house into the street, the acid had already burned all of the clothes she wore. The fabric melted into her skin. She saw my naked, wounded sister and removed her own shawl, tossing it over Babli’s shoulders. The woman just wanted to help, but the acid ate the shawl immediately into Babli’s burns. A taxi pulled over, seeing Babli gyrating in pain through the road. The driver opened his door, he and the woman thrust Babli in to the back, the woman climbed in, and they sped to Lady Redding Hospital,” the sister retold. “The two wanted to help her gently, but they saw the dire situation and knew they could barely touch her. They said they shoved her into the car, but Babli doesn’t remember if she hit the backseat hard or not.”
At the hospital, the doctors turned her away. “They told her they didn’t have a big burn unit. Take her to Khyber Hospital,” the sister explained. The taxi driver sped off to the hospital, a 45-minute drive away. The staff at Khyber Hospital admitted Babli and began a police case. The staff reached her family, who raced to Peshawar. The hospital staff took pictures, which would later help Khurshid, but at that time, they were meant to protect the hospital if Babli and her family decided to sue because of poor treatment.
After one week, the doctor told Babli she had to leave. Khyber Hospital didn’t have the facility or equipment to help her any more. Her burns were so bad that she would need specialized, and thus expensive, treatment. The nearest hospital that offered the care she needed was Karia Hospital in Punjab. The treatment would cost 50,000 rupees a day. The bandages alone cost 15,000 rupees a piece, changed daily. Her family was poor, so they took Babli home and hoped that they could keep her safe and clean, to help her heal.
Khurshid looked to Babli, “Please listen to me. I need you to answer. This is your decision. First, the main problem is your treatment. You need a doctor. Once I arrange this, what do you want?” Khurshid wanted these men punished, but she wouldn’t pressure her. Babli answered, “Yes, I want treatment, and also I want to punish this man. I want to register a case against my husband. I want the police to arrest him. I want his family and his brother involved in this case too. I want them all punished.”
Khurshid felt relief. She would have to work hard for this case and would meet danger along the way, but Khurshid wanted this violence to stop. As far as she could tell, an acid attack was attempted murder — by burning a woman with acid, you tried to disfigure her beyond repair.
Khurshid returned to Peshawar. Her work on the case started that night.
Khurshid’s approach to dealing with a conflict, no matter what the scale, began with a calm mind. Babli must get treatment for her burns, and they could not wait very long for risk of infection, if one hadn’t started already. She called a friend she knew had taken on acid throwing cases before, who told her about a woman in Islamabad.
They connected through a far-reaching civil society reference system. Khurshid knew the reputation of the acid victims’ group the woman worked with; she knew they would help Babli. Da Hawwa Lur didn’t have the funds to pay for the treatment, so Khurshid turned again to the reference system. Each organization and each person within the network brought a unique capacity to solve a problem, especially one as complex as she found in Babli. Khurshid gathered a medical certificate from the hospital to prove the extent of Babli’s burns, and Khurshid’s friend wrote a letter of support to verify the work of Da Hawwa Lur and the legitimacy of Babli’s case.
Khurshid addressed the criminal case next, filing a first incident report with the police station in Paripura. She entered the station and pointedly asked, “Why did you people not register this case when all these people in the area witnessed it?”
“No, no, ma’am. This is a personal matter, it’s a family matter, not for the police!” one officer responded.
“It’s not a personal matter! It’s attempted murder!” Khurshid exclaimed. Still, they refused to file. Babli’s husband came from a wealthy family; Khurshid suspected they paid off the police.
Khurshid convened with Babli in her family’s home in Nowshera, and asked if she wanted to go public with her case. Without hesitation, Babli permitted: “Yes, I want to show the real face of this type of man.” They constructed a plan to involve media so that the Pakhtun people would recognize that the problem was right there in their province. One online program, which covered issues specific to women’s rights and violence against women, interviewed Babli. She asked for two things: “Please, government, arrest these people and make a strong law against these things.”
Khurshid organized a protest in front of the press club demanding a reaction from the government in the form of new laws against acid throwing. In a province where women had limited access to public spaces, over 200 people — women dressed in burqas and chadors, young women and girls from the schools, and boys and men from the community — joined the protest, holding signs for Babli and all victims of acid attacks.
She later entered the police station — and spoke first. “We want you to arrest these men within 24 hours,” Khurshid instructed. Babli’s husband and his brother were arrested that day.
The case challenged Khurshid. The man’s family paid off the police in Paripura and Nowshera to silence the case, and called Khurshid at all hours to threaten her.
The threats found Khurshid at home. In the middle of one night, people on motorcycles rode down the lane in front of her house, firing guns at the wall. The neighbors rushed out, and the men drove away. The police came to take statements, but Khurshid had no idea who rode the motorcycles. No one had seen their faces. But a call came two days later, telling Khurshid to leave Peshawar or the next time it would be her body getting bullets. Babli’s family received similar calls. Khurshid didn’t want to file a case over the threats, fearing it might draw more attention to her family. She arranged security for Babli’s family. But Khurshid had to keep working. She couldn’t leave Peshawar; she couldn’t uproot her family. She had worked so many years to build Da Hawwa Lur and to form the citizen committees across the province. She wouldn’t be stopped by this one family.
Khurshid lived in fear, worried for her young children and her husband. As Babli’s case moved forward, the media, once sympathetic, turned on Khurshid and questioned her motives for helping. The case was bigger than Babli’s single attack. In addition to wanting the law changed, she wanted female police officers in every station so that women felt safe reporting any cases of violence. She wanted shopkeepers to stop selling acid so easily. She wanted stricter permitting for companies using acid in their products. She wanted a facility for burn victims in KP, not even exclusive to acid burn victims but strong enough to treat victims of bombings and other fires.
It took Babli’s burns three months to heal, not completely, but to a level that allowed her to deal with the mental trauma of the attack. The organization helped her with psychological support, and with Khurshid helped Babli establish a new life away from her husband. She began a tailoring service, making beautiful designs on fabrics, detailed embroideries of flowers.
And she divorced her husband. The court sentenced the two men to 14 years in prison. The children were divided between the families. Two went to their grandmother’s in Paripura; they were older and finishing their education. The younger two lived in Nowshera with their mother. Khurshid used the network again to raise funds for the younger children to ensure their education equal to the older siblings.
Khurshid doesn’t know what will happen when the men finish their sentences. This was the first case in Peshawar to punish men for the crime of acid throwing. It took many teams, many people shouting, but Khurshid made a plan that achieved justice for Babli. Five years later, in October 2016, Pakistan ratified a law criminalizing acid attacks as attempted murder.
Her Father is in Her Spirit
When Khurshid was elected union leader, her father was proud. He bragged to his brothers and cousins that his daughter had an education and a job. By this time, he was retired, and had time to watch Khurshid’s children while she went off to work. She would drop them off at the house and he would force her to eat a big breakfast. If Mian brought the kids over instead of Khurshid, her father would call her at work: “I’m coming with breakfast.” He’d show up at the gate and if the guard was absent, he would exclaim: “This isn’t safe! My daughter is in there! These women need protection!” Khurshid and her women co-workers would laugh, “It’s a safe place, Baba, don’t worry!” They would crowd him on the lawn, showering him with hugs and grabbing for the food. “It’s only for me today, right, Baba?” one girl would tease. “I feed all of you! You are all my daughters!”
He had changed over the years. When Benazir Bhutto campaigned in Peshawar, he made sure his wife and Khurshid attended, while he stayed behind to run the shop that day. When he saw Khurshid in beautiful clothes and jewelry, he gave her money to buy some for her mother as well. He had turned his business around and was making up for all the times he had not cared for his family. He had learned from Khurshid and her husband that kindness and understanding can build a strong family. When her second daughter was born, he held the baby in his arms and named her Talia: “lucky woman”. He explained that she was already lucky because she had Khurshid as a mother. He said he was lucky that he had Khurshid as a daughter.
And when Khurshid was elected union leader, he gifted her a set of books of the Sufi poet Allama Iqbal. They shared a love of music. When Khurshid was young, her father would listen to cassettes of singers performing ghazals by his favorite poet Bulleh Shah. When listening to Sufi music, he was calm and his hot temper dissipated. As children, Khurshid and her brothers and sisters would ask their father what they meant. Now, Khurshid’s four children asked her what the words meant, and she knew because she learned from her father.
He was 73 when a heart attack sent him to the hospital. Khurshid stayed with him every night. A nurse walked in one evening and he beamed: “This is my daughter. She is amazing. She has a job and is a labor leader.” The nurse smiled sweetly but hushed him, and Khurshid tried to as well: “Baba, rest.” He sat back against a pillow and told Khurshid how he wanted to take a tour of Pakistan when he left the hospital. He would feel better and would take Khurshid all over the country to all the places he hadn’t seen. He was gone by the next morning.
Now, when Khurshid listens to Sufi music, she feels close to God and close to her father. She remembers him in the songs that motivate her. She thought, He was a born leader, but because of the bounds of customs and norms, he couldn’t be. As she grew, he explained that he always wanted big things for his children, but he didn’t understand how to give them. He thought he had to silence his children. But through Khurshid, he learned — and he changed.
When Khurshid feels defeated and in need of motivation, she sings her favorite song, ol ke lab azad hai tere: “Speak freely. Speak out. Your lips are free. Ask. Don’t keep silent.”
About the Author
Alicia Wright studies journalists’ narrative writing processes in translation in India’s multilingual political and media systems. Her research centers on sociological questions about communication patterns between reporters and social movement groups, and she conducts ethnographic fieldwork in New Delhi. Wright is a doctoral student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she also organizes the Annual Conference on South Asia through the Center for South Asia. She received her BA in comparative literature and mathematics from Hamilton College and her MA in media studies from Syracuse University, with a graduate certificate in South Asian studies and a focus on conflict transformation.
CONVERSATION WITH KHURSHID BANO
On the Role of Men in Her Life
The following is a compilation of quotations taken from public events and private interview between Khurshid Bano and her peace writer, Alicia Wright.
One thing I remember from my childhood: my neighbor, he worked cooking food and selling it outside on the street. All the shopkeepers on the street bought and ate his food. This neighbor, he was a very honest, a very good man, but he was not a good man for his wife. They fought in front of their children. I saw him use a wooden thing to beat his wife. All her clothes ripped, and she ran in the bazaar. Many people came and gave her a chador. They asked, “Why are you beating her and she is bleeding like this?” I was very young then. I was so afraid. I heard his children crying, “Baba, don’t beat our mother.” So I saw this thing and became totally against men, understanding them to be violent and not understanding why they inflict violence on women.
But I wouldn’t always be against men. This would change. I started my work in 1986. It was a very good opportunity. I was young and energetic then because my family and my father and my brother had clipped my wings [before then]; they had killed my spirit. But I didn’t die. I thought, my wings are more powerful. I spent four years in the village, and my inner thoughts and my mind grew strong. I became more polished in this darkness, and the women’s situations and stories made me stronger.
After I started my job back in Peshawar, I went to visit my father, and he was so happy when he met with me. He said, “I’m proud of you. Please forgive me because I know you didn’t make a wrong decision back then. You were on the straight path, and you are good. I was very mazboot, strong and strong-willed.”
I said, “No, Baba, it was good for me. You married me and my companion. My husband, he made me stronger. Now I am in front of the people.” On 25 May 1986, I started my journey.
On the Women of Pakistan
The women are not aware about their basic rights. Basic rights mean education, health, marriage, and a priority is the vote. They do not take part in the decision-making positions. The men never want to push the women to go to the front. They never ever want this; they want to restrict the women because they think the women are not good decision makers. But a woman, a Pakistani woman, is very sharp, very intelligent.
I sacrificed my young age. I refused makeup. I didn’t go to parties. I refused all things because I’m working with common people, laborers, and going along the road. In the road, people will whisper, “She is wearing lipstick so she is not a good woman.” I am careful. Nobody tells my husband, “Your wife is sitting with this man and that man.” I sacrificed all my feelings. I left all these things.
I tell my daughters, “Don’t sacrifice your beautiful days because those days go and don’t come back. Now, I’m a 50-year-old woman. I can’t go back 20 years or 18 years. That was my beautiful age time. Now is a very big gap. I always compromise, compromise, but I teach the women not to compromise. Women don’t compromise for women; they compromise always for men, their husbands and fathers. The woman is very powerful, but the man always holds her to his side.
The women have freedom, but with freedom and the horse the reins are in the man’s hand. They could tell us, “Go fast!” But they want to stop the horse because it is powerful. The horse is a powerful animal in the world, but when the rider prods the horse, it stops riding on its own. This is the position of Pakistani women.
I target the women, especially the mother because the mother is sewing a seed in the mind of the children. When the child sits in a woman’s lap, we discuss everything. Love, hate, happiness, beauty, everything. When the child hears, “This is a beautiful star and moon,” the beauty is spread in their mind.
If I say, “Don’t play with these neighborhood children because they are Christian, they are Shia, and we are big Muslims so don’t touch them,” when they grow up, they hate. All these ideas are mixed in their personalities, and they don’t become good human beings. So the mother has a big responsibility to take care and train their children the line of no hate and no conflict. Treat people with love, equality, and the right things.
Steps to Prevent Taliban-ization
This is difficult, but the grassroots people want to change. We give training about the indicators of peace and what you feel is the change in your children. We make a little drama for the school level. I wrote a little play, a tableau, based on an interview I had with one woman. She’s weeping because she lost her son to the Taliban. He went to join the Taliban group. So when I met her and interviewed her, she said, “It’s my fault. It’s not my son’s fault.”
I ask, “Please explain why you say this.”
She said, “He’s 15 years old, and he spends most of his time with the radicalized group of boys. When they come they have expensive things. They make 2,000 rupees and 200 rupees. I’m very happy to take this from my son, but I never thought about where they earned this money. So after six months, they disappeared, disappeared, disappeared. So I’m weeping, ‘Where is my son? Where is my son?’ I ask the madrassa people, but they say, ‘No, we don’t know where he’s gone.’ So one night, an unknown person called me, ‘Mubarak, your son has gone to heaven.’ They made him a suicide bomber, and he lost his life.”
The mother is weeping, and this makes a good point. If the mother is trained, the mother observes their children and what they are doing. In this way we make a drama on the basis of this woman’s experience.
We make two women: one woman is happy to receive expensive things from her son, and the other searches for where he picked up these things. The second woman investigates, goes near the door of the room her son is in and hears her son talking to the men who train for the Taliban. She calls the police, and they arrive to arrest these men. The first woman’s son is lost to suicide in the name of the Taliban. So we make the people aware of these situations. We teach them to question, “Did your son bring home a 10,000 rupee mobile? Who has given this?”
Without the help of the men we are not complete in this mission. We train the men and teenage boys to keep watch for suspicious things. Like in one case, at a bread shop, the shopkeeper knew that down the street on the corner, there was a house where two or three people lived. At night, someone came and would always take 100 or 200 loaves of bread back to the house. The shopkeeper asked one night, “Why do you take all this bread?” The shopkeeper and his helper, a 16-year-old boy, informed the police of what they had seen go into the house. When the police and army arrived at the house in an investigative operation, they found many Taliban members and seized weapons, pistols, and bombs. This shows the success of our group. With this type of training, things begin to go good.
On Labor Unions
I work in collaboration with many organizations and partner with organizations like the International Labour Organization, UN Women, in the national and international partnership in the Alliance Against Sexual Harassment (AASHA) movement, a women’s run movement. We wanted to make a law against sexual harassment in the workplace, and with the struggle of all civil society members, AASHA was able to draft the law against sexual harassment in Pakistan in 2010. The AASHA movement ended.
In all the time I worked on a volunteer basis, and after 2012, I initiated my organization Da Hawwa Lur. It is 20 years old, but I didn’t document it in the law then. In 2012, I registered Da Hawwa Lur. We have struggled to make this organization for the welfare of women, to provide legal aid, to help make anti-discrimination and labor laws, and to work openly on all things related to the discrimination against women’s rights. We try to collect donations from our friends, families, colleagues, and national and international people. I also conduct lectures on sexual harassment awareness in institutions, colleges, schools, workplaces, and factories. They pay me, and I can give this money back to my office expenses.
Nowadays, I have a project, not so big, but $2,000 in funds for a Women Skills Centre to process food. In the village, many vegetables and fruits are readily available but often wasted. The women want to process these fruits and vegetables to make a way to save them. So we want to train the women in food processing.
In 2001, I still served as a union member, and I was selected in the Pakistan Worker Federation (PWF). This is a federation of unions under one umbrella. In all the Khyberregion, I was selected and became general secretary of the PWF Women Wing in KP.
In PWF, we discuss labor issues; we train new leaders; and we travel and make connections. I traveled to Islamabad to the head office to learn new information. I trained with the ILO so that I could learn techniques to train others in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. I visited women working in Punjab, Balochistan, and Sindh. I visited many workplaces and factories to discuss labor laws openly with women in the workplace who sometimes didn’t receive the information from their male labor union leaders because these men didn’t think protections for women were necessary. When I joined AASHA (Alliance Against Sexual Harassment), it was easy for me to spread the message to all these women I had reached before through PWF.
On Grassroots Organizing
When the army men — the captain or the colonel or the major — come to the front, they have a big platoon in the back. We are also like the front fighters, and we need in our mind people in a big line behind us. It’s not possible without these people, or the situation becomes worse and worse. So, I believe in community and grassroots people. Grassroots people make a change everywhere.
We celebrated Labor Day in May. Not the big position people, the laborers. They are daily workers celebrating, and they made a change. On 8 March, we celebrate Women’s Day because two sisters made a change. I, Khurshid Bano, am a little woman. I don’t go to the high levels. I’m a grassroots woman. I’m struggling, still struggling. It’s possible, possible, but change is going very slow because the negative-minded people, there are many, and the positive are [fewer]. So this is how it is, but inshallah, in my life change will happen. But organizations and community, the grassroots, they make a big change.
Political Developments in Pakistan and Personal History of Khurshid Bano
1947 Pakistan becomes an independent nation, split between East and West Pakistan after it separates from India.
1948 The founder of Pakistan, Quaid-i-Azam (Great Leader) Muhammad Ali Jinnah dies.
1958 After a series of prime ministers, General Ayub Khan takes over government as president and enforces martial law.
1964 Khurshid Bano is born.
1965 First Indo-Pakistani War after Operation Gibraltar in Jammu and Kashmir is instigated by Pakistan in August.
1969 General Yahya Khan takes over government from President Ayub Khan.
1970 First democratic election held in Pakistan. The Pakistan Peoples Party refuses to hand over power to winning Awami League in East Pakistan.
1971 The Bangladesh War of Liberation begins, and in December the 13-Day War is fought when India strikes West Pakistan, resulting in the split of East and West Pakistan into Bangladesh and Pakistan, respectively. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto takes position as president of Pakistan.
A young Khurshid helps train her brothers and sisters and neighborhood children how to stay safe during bombings.
1973 Fazal Ilahi Chaudhry appointed president of Pakistan, and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto is named prime minister.
1977 Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq takes over the government.
1978 Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto is hanged by the Zia-ul-Haq government.
1979 The Soviet-Afghan War begins.
1982 Khurshid passes her metric exam and finishes secondary school.
1983 Khurshid starts studies at Frontier College for Women, in Peshawar.
1984 Khurshid protests for the re-admission of her student union friends.
The principal, with the agreement of Khurshid’s father, expels her from college. He forces her to marry Mian Zaid Shah in a pre-arranged marriage, and she moves to the town of Nowshera with her in-laws.
1986 Khurshid’s husband takes a job in Peshawar and so they move. He allows her to resume her education, and she soon finds work at the Pakistan Telecommunication Company, Ltd.
1988 Zia-al-Haq dies in a plane crash. Benazir Bhutto, exiled daughter of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, returns to Pakistan and begins campaigning for election. She becomes prime minister.
Khurshid and her mother attend an assembly by Benazir Bhutto in Jinnah Park in Peshawar.
1989 Khurshid finishes her bachelor’s degree.
1990 Bhutto’s government ends.
1991 Nawaz Sharif’s government begins.
Khurshid gives birth to her first child, a boy, Hambal Shah.
1992 Khurshid begins to take part in union leadership at PTCL. She begins meeting with women from work and the neighborhood to form committees to address women’s issues.
1993 Shawana, Khurshid’s first daughter, is born.
1997 Khurshid’s second daughter and third child, Talia Shah, is born. Khurshid’s father dies several weeks after a heart attack.(“Khurshid’s father dies several weeks later from a heart attack.”)
1999 General Pervez Musharraf takes over the government.
2000 Khurshid’s last child, a boy named Hanzala, is born. She begins work as the first female telephone technician in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for PTCL.
2003 Khurshid’s mother dies.
2007 Benazir Bhutto is assassinated.
2008 Government of Pakistan People’s Party led by Asif Ali Zardari takes control.
2009 Government launches Operation Rah-e-Nijat to combat the Pakistani T aliban.
There is a bomb blast near Khurshid’s house.
2010 Two major laws pass by the Pakistani government: Pakistan Penal Code 509 and the Protection Against Harassment at Workplace. These were the aims of the Alliance Against Sexual Harassment.
2012 The organization that Khurshid started informally, Da Hawwa Lur (Daughters of Eve), is registered with the government as an official organization.
2015 Khurshid and Da Hawwa Lur launch the first women’s union in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa called the KPK Working Women’s Union.
2016 Khurshid is selected to be a Woman PeaceMaker at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice at the University of San Diego.
Conflict History - Pakistan
Since its founding in 1947, Pakistan has functioned largely as an Islamic nation in political turmoil. When the British retreated from the subcontinent, the Partition agreement divided India and Pakistan — Muslims on the Indian side migrated to Pakistan, while Hindus migrated to India. Millions were forced to leave their homes — on foot, vehicle, or train — and often met violent attacks or death along the route.
Quad-i-Azam (Great Leader) Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the moderate Muslim leader involved in the independence struggle against the British, envisioned a Pakistan under the tenets of Islam but welcome to all religions. This new nation would house a majority Muslim population, but offer the freedom for others to practice the religion of their choosing.
Jinnah served as the first Governor General of Pakistan with a plan to heal the reeling nation after Partition and grow the country into a strong democracy. However, in 1948, he died unexpectedly. Since then, the political history of modern Pakistan consists of stories of instability, military coups, political assassinations, and contested elections.
The sections below describe how these affected armed conflict with neighboring countries as well as internal cultural, religious, and ethnic tensions; the effects of extremism; and violence against women.
The 1971 War
In 1970, democratic elections were called for, with the two main parties enjoying support in the two different segments of Pakistan: Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in West Pakistan and the Awami League in East Pakistan. Following the victory of the Awami League, the PPP, with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in power, refused to concede. East Pakistan revolted and declared war against West Pakistan in 1971.
India offered military assistance to East Pakistan in December 1971, giving East Pakistan a significant advantage over West Pakistan. For 13 days, West Pakistan was riddled with missile fire by the Indian military. East Pakistan won the war and became Bangladesh.
Though the battle lasted only 13 days, it changed the face of Pakistan and reopened wounds from Partition. Additionally, Pakistan would soon undergo another shift to destabilize democracy and propel the nation into political, economic, and social turmoil ongoing today.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Soviet-Afghan War
With four provinces — Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab, and Sindh — Pakistan shares borders with India, Iran, and Afghanistan. In the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir, Pakistan faces off with China and India over the line of control. With a fragile border along Afghanistan called the Durand Line (marked by the British in the late 19th century), the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) faces immense strife — battling a refugee crisis, extremist attacks, and significant oppression and violence against women.
KP, formerly the Northwest Province, houses 24 districts, with Peshawar the provincial capital. In 2015, the Federally Administered Tribal Area was incorporated into KP. Its name, loosely translated, means “the land of the Pakhtuns and all”. Many tribes besides the Pakhtuns reside there, but Pakhtuns make up the majority of the 21 million people, with the province consisting of the Urdu-speaking metropolis and the Pashto- speaking rural and urban majority.
In the Soviet-Afghan War, which started in 1979, Pakistan — namely the provinces of KP and Balochistan — became a frontier for external nations to confront the Soviet Union. The Soviet attack on Afghanistan was seen as a final attempt to revive the decaying Communist regime. Arms supplied by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and other countries travelled through Pakistan to arm Afghan rebel groups fighting the Soviets. President Zia-ul-Haq, aligned with the Jamaat-i Islami party and ruling under martial law starting in 1977, supported many of the mujahideen resistance groups of Afghanistan that promoted a political agenda aligned with conservative Islam. Zia ul-Haq saw the potential strength of an Islamic front to compete against the pressures of India on its eastern border.
The Soviets eventually withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, but the war left both countries along the Durand Line weak, and did little to stop international interference in the countries’ politics and violence between the military and rebels and extremists, and in some way fueled what would become “the war on terror”.
Extremism and Terrorism
The roots of extremism under the guise of Islam has a deep and complex history in Pakistan, related both to its own internal dynamics but also the influence of neighboring countries and international interventions.
Extremism is often fueled by poverty. Pakistan’s suffering economy makes it difficult to combat militants on the government level, but on the civilian level it makes something as simple as paying for school fees a challenge. Madrassas — Islamic schools, many of which cultivate young militants — offer free education, and usually room and board, as well as the promise of financial compensation and support for a martyr’s family, making madrassa education a viable option.
Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, General Pervez Musharraf, the leader of the country at the time, allied Pakistan with the United States’ “war on terror”. Though it had been a supporter of the Taliban while it ruled Afghanistan, Pakistan turned against them and supported the U.S. invasion. Militants allied with the Afghan Taliban, as well as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (also known as the Pakistani Taliban, though the groups are separate), al-Qaeda and other groups, have waged conflict against foreign forces and the governments of both countries — though the attacks have a disproportionate effect on civilians.
For example, in February 2009, the Pakistan government attempted to broker a ceasefire with the Taliban by reinstating Sharia law throughout the region. But militants continued to attack government forces and overstep the bounds of the agreement, so in May the military launched a campaign to force the Taliban out of Pakistan. The conflict created the largest mass movement of people since the migration during partition — 1.3 million Pakistanis became refugees or internally displaced persons.1
The Pakistani Taliban’s attacks on civilians and government security forces have become bolder and bolder. In 2014, the group attacked a school in Peshawar in KP, killing 132 children and 9 others.
(Footnote) 1 This paragraph is taken from the “Conflict History” section of Standing with our Sisters: The Life and Work of Rehana Hashmi of Pakistan, by Sue Diaz. (Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice, University of San Diego, 2013)
The War on Women
In the nation’s early years, women had the possibility of education and freedom, but many subsequent leaders invoked Islam to oppress women’s roles. Conservative Islamic parties like Jamaat-i Islami argued for Sharia law in which women were relegated to the home to keep house and produce children. Women wouldn’t need education and should be seen in public as little as possible.
During President Zia-ul-Haq’s regime, the national government worked to develop appropriate legislation and punishment that matched the teachings of Islamic texts. Through the appointment of an Islamic Council, the government passed laws blatantly against women. The Hudood Ordinances of 1979 became the stark symbol of male dominance in Pakistani society. The laws set several provisions about many sins and how the law should punish perpetrators.
One example, though not the full extent of laws against women, involved zina, the act of adultery. The Hudood Ordinance related to zina stated that men and women who engaged in lewd acts should be stoned, that the marital status of the adulterers might litigate the severity of the punishment, and that four witnesses had to confirm an act of adultery against someone.
Many acts of violence committed against women often go excused as shields for culture and morality. Women who refuse marriage agreements, who speak out against men, who seek divorces, who speak with men outside her family, who take off their head coverings — may face punishment for nearly anything they do in public or at home. This could include punishments related to the legal system, cultural oppression, religious regulations, and repressive familial practices such as honor killings and acid attacks.
At the same time, Pakistan has many laws that seek to protect women. The Protection of Women Act of 2006, sought to reverse the damage inflicted through the Hudood Ordinances. The Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace, 2010, established the means for women to gain education and work without discrimination. A milestone law that finally acknowledged the prevalence of acid attacks, the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Act, tightened the stipulations for selling acid in the market to try to cut down on the availability of the weapon to be used by disgruntled men and families against women.
Women PeaceMakers Program
The Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice’s (IPJ) Women PeaceMakers Program annually hosts four women from around the world who have been involved in human rights and peacemaking efforts in their countries.
Women on the frontline of efforts to end violence and secure a just peace seldom record their experiences, activities and insights — as generally there is no time or, perhaps, they do not have formal education that would help them record their stories. The Women PeaceMakers Program is a selective program for leaders who want to document, share and build upon their unique peacemaking stories.
Women PeaceMakers are paired with a Peace Writer to document in written form their story of living in conflict and building peace in their communities and nations. While in residence at the institute, Women PeaceMakers give presentations on their work and the situation in their home countries to the university and San Diego communities.
The IPJ believes that women’s stories go beyond headlines to capture the nuance of complex situations and expose the realities of gender-based violence, thus providing an understanding of conflict and an avenue to its transformation. The narrative stories of Women PeaceMakers not only provide this understanding, but also show the myriad ways women construct peace in the midst of and after violence and war. For the realization of peace with justice, the voices of women — those severely affected by violent conflict and struggling courageously and creatively to build community from the devastation — must be recorded, disseminated and spotlighted.