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New Wardrobe Brings Freedom to Women in Swat

New Wardrobe Brings Freedom to Women in Swat

Author: Sabrina Tavernise
Publication: The New York Times
Date: September 22, 2009

When the Taliban took control here in February and forced women into burqas, an epidemic of clumsiness swept this city. Women began banging into lamp posts. Nurses fumbled needles. Many simply stopped going out altogether.

Now the Taliban are mostly gone, driven out by a military operation this summer, and the women of this northern Pakistani city, the largest in the Swat Valley, are returning to public life. Teachers are back at work, maids are commuting to jobs across town and nurses are giving injections without having to squint through a coarse layer of netting.

People here still worry that the war could return anytime. Last month, a suicide bomber killed 15 police officers at the central police station here. But for now, at least, women are feeling steady on their feet, a cautious vote of confidence in security here by society's most vulnerable.

"When the Taliban fled, our burqas went with them," said Shahin Begum, 40, an elementary school teacher, who returned to work on Aug. 1.

Women were the main targets of the Taliban's morals police, and once that rigid rule was imposed their lives froze. They were barred from going to traditional women's shopping areas, and anyone who worked in a public place, including hospitals, was required to wear a burqa, a sacklike, head-to-toe garment with netting over the eyes.

The burqa is traditional for many women in tribal, conservative western Pakistan. But here in the Swat Valley and its ethnically mixed hill towns north of the capital, Islamabad, women are relatively more open, and for many the outfit felt clumsy and confining.

"I felt like I was out of air," said Zaida Bibi, a maid in a green shawl with flowers.

Now, she said, it still feels like a delicious act of revenge to walk into Cheena Market, a maze of glittering glass stalls full of cosmetics, dresses and shoes that was forbidden under the Taliban, where she was shopping Sunday.

"It's a free, light feeling," she said as she chose gifts for Id al-Fitr, a major Muslim holiday, which was celebrated this week.

For many women here, after nearly two years of twisting themselves into strange shapes to survive, returning to work is its own form of protest. Asia Habib, 28, left a job in Peshawar, the regional capital, to return to her nursing position in a private hospital in Mingora in July. She remembers arguing with a Taliban fighter who threatened her when she refused to buy him medicine. What was worse, she had to wear a burqa to treat him.

"I had two jobs - managing the burqa and treating the patient," said Ms. Habib, wearing a white shawl. "You wanted to weep but you couldn't even do that in front of them."

The burqa was not the worst of women's troubles, but it was one of the most public displays of what the Taliban wanted of women - that they disappear. At first many women changed to a Persian Gulf niqab, with a slit for the eyes. But that was not enough for the Taliban, so the Afghanistan ghost style became mandatory.

"That's when we started falling down," said Shahi Begum, a 45-year-old primary school teacher. Like horses with blinders on, women lost their peripheral vision. Climbing into rickshaws became treacherous, as women gathered billowing material to sit in a small space. "Legs in one direction, hands in another," Ms. Begum said.

Sharisa Rehman, a teacher who returned to her job at the Sangota Girls School on Aug. 3, said she still had difficulty thinking about the time she spent under Taliban rule. "I was bound like a prisoner," she said.

Her postcommute changing routine out of her burqa reminded her of a superhero. "Like Spider-Man," she said.

Nearly all her students have returned, she said, despite coming from affluent families who had migrated to larger, safer Pakistani cities. That ratio is much lower in rural areas of Swat.

Taliban rule left people here poorer. As girls schools began to close, Ms. Bibi's work cleaning them dried up, and she could no longer risk traveling to work in private homes. Her children's shoes grew tight. Her daughter was separated from her baby long enough that she stopped lactating, and finding the money to buy milk became a daily struggle.

"Life was strangled," she said, adding, "we hated them."

That life seems far away now. People take pleasure in once mundane things that disappeared under the Taliban, like traffic and TV. The Swat Cinema held its second screening in two years on Monday; so many people were clamoring to see the Pashtun shoot 'em-up that three more shows were added.

Mingora may seem normal now, but the social ills that fueled militancy are unchanged. Young men in the rural parts of the valley, where the insurgency began, are still unemployed. The Taliban remains a formidable force in other areas of western Pakistan, and the government has yet to fill the vacuum they left in Swat.

"Just because there's no Taliban, doesn't mean the problem is gone," said Sher Yar, a businessman waiting in line for a haircut. "No practical steps have been taken for people to have faith in the government."

Ms. Begum, the elementary school teacher, said she believed that the Taliban gave false messages to young people, including that Islam required women's faces to be covered. But in a measure of how wary she still is, Ms. Begum said she would not speak of this in her classroom, for fear that her remarks might bring trouble.

Ms. Rehman, the private school teacher, used her burqa to express her doubts. "It's still hanging in my room, ready to wear," she said.

Irfan Ashraf and Jason Tanner contributed reporting from Mingora.

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