Private Portraits: The Deaths of Women

Private Portraits: The Deaths of Women

Rafia Zakaria: Private Portraits – The Deaths of Women

This is the third post in Rafia Zakaria’s series at Dissent, “Private Portraits: A Pakistan Diary.? Click here for the previous post.

In the hours between 3 and 5 a.m., Karachi is almost quiet; the honks and hollers of traffic wane as the city allows itself a nocturnal exhalation. The prohibitive costs of power mean that its streets and buildings are unlit when there are no cars around or people awake?a darkening and silencing that feels both awkward and ominous. It was at this dark moment between night and day, sound and silence, that two women were killed on January 31, 2012, just as my plane was landing at Jinnah International Airport on the other side of the city. They were Zamur Domki, thirty-four, and her daughter Jaana, thirteen, the wife and daughter of Mir Bakhtiar Domki, a member of the Provincial Assembly of the neighboring province of Balochistan. The assailants attacked the women in their car, which was parked outside a house by a bridge that goes to the south of the city, to the Arabian Sea. They died instantly, showered by a barrage of bullets from automatic weapons. The women had come to Karachi to attend a family wedding and were about to return home.

In the days following the attack, their deaths have become the flashpoint for a vexing medley of issues and political interests in Pakistan. The women were the granddaughter and great-granddaughter of Nawab Akbar Bugti, a leader of the embattled Baloch province who was himself killed in a military operation in 2006 during the administration of President Pervez Musharraf. Akbar Bugti had been leading an armed insurgency in the province protesting military overreach and the usurpation of Balochistan?s natural resources by the federal government. Given this history, the murders of the women were quickly absorbed into the bloody conflict between the military, the federal government, and the Baloch leaders. On Monday, February 5, the Supreme Court of Pakistan, already in the midst of inquiries on missing persons in Balochistan, took suo moto notice of the issue. A three-member bench headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry ordered the highest police officials in Karachi to arrest the killers of the women within four days.

In the week since, the Domki deaths have loomed large over Pakistan. A protest strike shut down the province of Balochistan for days, and a female minister in the Balochistan Provincial Assembly resigned. Everyone was outraged; everyone had a theory, or could point to a conspiracy. As with everything else in Pakistan, there were many yarns, leading to the same inscrutable knots: the intelligence agencies, political enemies, opposing tribes, or some other lethal keepers of secret vendettas. Anyone could be responsible and so it seemed no one would be. Amid the familiar performances of outrage, no one seemed to notice that only a handful of the hundreds of articles published on the case even mentioned the women by name, and that not a single one bothered to consider how the lives of these women were cut short. Beyond being Bugti or Baloch, there was no curiosity about who they were, what they may have liked or disliked, anything that would render them human beyond ethnicity or lineage.

Like most Pakistanis raised on stewed stories, I have few means of sorting out the messy mix of truths, lies, and conspiracy that surrounds the deaths of Zamur and Janaa Domki. What I do have are the collected memories of other nameless women, anointed in death as the handmaidens for all causes but their own. Years ago, the ethnic lines between Muhajirs?the migrants from India that arrived in Karachi after Pakistan was created in 1947?and Pashtun migrant workers who arrived decades later were also deepened by the death of a woman. In the summer of 1986, Bushra Zaidi, a young female student, left her college campus to take the bus home. Before she could board and squeeze into the cramped women?s compartments, she was crushed to death by a Pashtun bus driver. The incident set off an ethnic war between Karachi?s Muhajir majority and the Pashtun minority. Over two hundred people were killed in the riots that followed, and fighting flared up in the city?s ethnically mixed neighborhoods for the next year and a half. This wasn?t about the hardships of traversing the city?s treacherous roads as a lone woman, or the dearth of opportunities for young female students; it was about ethnicity and honor. Insignificant in life, dead women could be molded to suit causes in death.

This week Shahid Bugti, a Baloch senator who raised the issue of the deaths in the senate, said in his statement, ?In our Pashtun and Baloch culture, even during battles, women and children were never targeted but this incident is indeed a target killing incident since they had no enmity with anyone.? I paused at this statement when I read it in the newspaper, and when I heard it again on television. I wanted to believe him; to grant him the space owed to the bereaved, the right to say that there was some core Baloch cultural belief in always protecting women. But I could not extricate his words from the memory of the last time the issue of Baloch women was raised in Pakistan?s senate. In the summer of 2008, three other Baloch women were killed on the dusty plains of the same province, also gunned down in a barrage of bullets. The perpetrator in that incident was their brother, who killed the three teenagers because they wished to choose their own husbands. They were still breathing when sand and stone were piled on their bodies. They were buried alive.

Unlike the unknown assailants that killed Zamur and Janaa Domki on this last day of January 2012, the murderers of those three Baloch girls were known but never punished. Because their deaths could not be pinned to a larger political cause, touted as an attack on the culture or the people, those Baloch girls simply became errant women eliminated for defying the will of the men to whom they belonged. They deserved no justice, no walkouts from the senate, no province-wide strikes, no attention from the supreme court. When Israrullah Zehri from the Balochistan Provincial Assembly raised that issue in Senate in September 2008, he insisted that the man who had shot the girls ?had done nothing wrong,? that ?These are centuries old traditions and I will continue to defend them.? Neither Baloch nor Pakistani culture, it seems, could be availed to demand justice for them.

The Baloch cause is important?the usurpation of the province?s resources and the displacement of indigenous populations by war are real, and the persecution of its religious minorities by invading crews of militant groups are a suffocating burden for its men and women. Similarly, the lawlessness of Karachi, where ten or twelve or fifty die daily from seething political vendettas or become the random targets of hungry, roaming street criminals, weighs heavy on all who live there, male and female. The tragedy of their collective suffering is that one half of the victims are unknown in life and in death, except when the circumstances of their end can be wed to something more important, to someone male.

Read the fourth post: Agents of Change