by Jan Goodwin
It’s impossible to imagine the sheer terror that five Pakistani women went through at the end of July, when they were removed from their homes and buried alive by male relatives. They were driven to the desert in Baluchistan, in a car with provincial government plates. Then three of them, teenagers aged between 16 and 18, were beaten, shot, then dumped in a ditch. As they were still breathing, sand and stones were piled on top of them until they suffocated. Their crime? They’d had the temerity to say they wanted to choose the men they marry. Two other women, believed to be relatives of the teenage girls, were also buried alive with them because they tried to rescue the victims.
When the French-based International Federation for Human Rights publicized the murders, after they were ignored for more than a month by authorities, an outraged Baluchistan senator defended the so-called honor killings, stating, “They are our norms. They should not be viewed negatively.” Honor killing, long a custom in Pakistan, was outlawed four years ago. But since the legislation was watered-down so greatly to appease conservative hardliners, it has been all but useless, claim human rights and women’s groups. Consequently, honor killings continue to happen frequently, particularly in rural areas. Adding insult to deadly injury, a senior Interior Ministry official stated, as if it mitigated the murders, “I doubt it is an honor killing. It could be a dispute over property.” Yet as he well knows, Pakistan’s women are often murdered or gangraped with impunity over land deals that go wrong between men. Seen as male property, women are the preferred easy soft targets when men take revenge on other men. By damaging men’s “possessions,” male pride, or honor, is damaged, as is intended, no matter how many female corpses are left behind.
After the five women were buried alive, Pakistan’s new President Asif Zardari, Benazir Bhutto’s widower, chose to look the other way. Like his wife before him (who did nothing to improve her country’s dismal record on women’s rights), he preferred to play politics, knowing he needed Baluchistan’s support in his recent election.
A barren, impoverished province, Baluchistan is where Pakistan’s too many nuclear weapons are tested. Which is why the U.S. has poured $5.4 billion in military aid into the country in recent years, with the hope that those same weapons of mass destruction won’t fall into extremist hands. Thus far, reportedly, some 70 percent of that money has been misspent. (Ironically, Pakistan’s new president, who was promptly dubbed Mr. 10 percent for his alleged profiteering on deals when he married Benazir Bhutto, which quickly escalated to Mr. 50 percent when his wife was in office, will now be in charge of his country’s budget, despite being repeatedly charged with corruption, and incarcerated for 11 years.)
Baluchistan’s provincial capital, Quetta, is a Taliban stronghold, and the renascent Taliban is the most anti-woman movement in modern history. As the Taliban’s deputy foreign minister once told me, they are funded and supported by Saudi Arabia, America’s staunch petroleum ally. But the Taliban took the oppression of women to a higher level than even that of the Saudi government. Unfortunately for Pakistanis, the Taliban is now very active in their country, as well as in Afghanistan. But Baluchistan, Pakistan’s most southern province, is also a center of arch-conservative tribalism. It is here where it is believed that women should leave the house only twice in their lives: when they marry and move with their husbands into their in-laws’ homes, and when they die. Not surprisingly, female literacy in this region is barely three percent.
Dressed To Kill: Women as Disposable Tools
Historically, not only have women been subjected to terror in the many patriarchal countries, like Pakistan, around the globe, they are now also being used as tools of terror by those who subjugated them.
At the end of August, a 15-year-old Iraqi girl was drugged, had 33 pounds of explosives tied around her torso, and was sent out to blow herself up outside a local school. Fortunately for everyone, her odd behavior alerted police, and her suicide vest was defused. Now imprisoned, she has become a propaganda tool for both the Iraqi security forces and Al Qaeda militants, who planned to use her as a remote-controlled bomb.
Last year, I traveled to Sri Lanka, a stunningly beautiful country, to interview a would-be female suicide bomber now in detention, and awaiting execution or life imprisonment. Twenty-seven-year old Menake was on her final reconnaissance trip last September before blowing herself up to assassinate Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister, when she aroused suspicion and was arrested. She told me that on the day she was to die, she planned to wear a sequined shalwar-kameez, the traditional loose tunic and baggy pants, because the sequins would disguise her suicide vest worn underneath. Packed with C-4 plastic explosives and dozens of 3 mm steel balls, when she tugged the vest’s detonator, she knew she would become a horribly effective human bomb, capable of killing and maiming some 100 people.
The suicide bomber vest was the gruesome brainchild of Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers, or LTTE (The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), and its design has since been exported to deadly effect around the world, including Iraq, Israel and Afghanistan. It was used for the first time 30 miles from Madras, now Chennai, in India, by a female Tamil Tiger in 1991 to assassinate Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Since then, 40 percent of such Tamil Tiger attacks are carried out by girls and women, the highest percentage of female suicide bombers in the world. Suicide bombings are not only the cheapest weapon of war, according to the Rand Institute in California, they kill four times as many people as do other terrorist acts.
The Tamil Tigers, labeled a terrorist group by the U.S., the EU and India, have been fighting for an independent state in the north of the country for the last 26 years, which the Sinhala majority-backed government has just as violently been resisting. In that time, some 70,000 Sri Lankans have been killed, tens of thousands have fled abroad as refugees, and some 600,000 are internally displaced within the country.
Menake was a member of the elite suicide commando squad, or Black Tigers, of the LTTE, who are all required to wear cyanide capsules around their necks. They pledge to bite down on the glass capsule when captured to avoid talking under torture. Her arrest happened too fast, however, and she never had time to poison herself. When the cyanide was found, she was beaten unconscious, and shipped off to the notorious Boosa Detention Center in the south, Sri Lanka’s own Guantanamo.
I wanted to know what kind of young woman volunteers to blow herself and others to smithereens. At first meeting, she was gentle, soft-spoken, with a shy smile, the kind of person you’d happily hire as a nanny for your kids. But her background was grim.
Home had been a shack in an impoverished fishing village, where her alcoholic father battered her mother to death when Menake was three. When the girl was only seven, her father, on a drunken binge, raped her for four days. Rape is something many female suicide bombers share in common. Considered spoiled goods and unmarriageable in their patriarchal cultures, studies show they view becoming human bombs as the only redeeming option left, a form of purification by fire. Rajiv Gandhi’s assassin was also raped by soldiers in the Indian Peacekeeping Force, when it was based in Sri Lanka for three years.
After her father disappeared, Menake was taken in by an uncle and aunt, who didn’t want another mouth to feed. Then, when there was a shortage of fighters, the LTTE levied a human tax, as they often do, demanding that Tamil families contribute a relative, male or female, to the war effort. Menake’s relatives turned her over to an LTTE training camp. “They just said, ‘She is yours.’ Menake recalls. “I begged the Tigers not to take me, that I didn’t want to die so young. But they ignored me.”
The cult-like LTTE are not a fun group. Gender segregated, they ban sex and romantic attachments. The founder and commander-in-chief, Velupillai Prabhakaran executed two of his closest senior aides after they were caught having sex together, reportedly for the first time. They also forbid alcohol, tobacco, and any kind of drugs.
In the military camp, Menake was brainwashed for 18 hours a day, seven days a week. She was taught to kill, and over and over, indoctrinated about who the enemy was. Escape attempts were rare. Those who turned against the LTTE were hunted down and killed.
When she suffered a bad fall, a Tamil Tiger doctor told her she had suffered nerve damage in her spine and could eventually be paralyzed. “I was depressed and in pain, and thought why continue to live?” she says. “I felt I had no other choice but to become a suicide bomber.”
Had she ever gave any thought to her victims, very likely including innocent women and kids who were just passersby? I asked her. “I came to the capital to destroy, to kill. We are taught to forget the victims,” she replied. “I was just focused on the target. Never had time to think about who else I would kill. I was simply told this was the enemy. It was a job to go and do.”
This automaton-like reaction from years of brainwashing is not unusual. “I knew I was going toward death, and just kept walking,” says Menake. “They tell you this is part of your duty. I never questioned it. I didn’t think about fear. We knew there would be a time when we would see today, and not see tomorrow. I saw other girls go off, and never come back. Then, in the next batch, they took me.”
Once her turn came, Menake, like all suicide bombers, was given a last supper before leaving for her mission. In the past, it used to be with the LTTE leader, now it is his deputy, Pottu Amman, head of LTTE intelligence. Like a prisoner on death row, which she essentially was, Menake was given her choice of menu. She chose chicken, fried rice, vegetable curry, and vanilla ice cream. Pottu Amman is wanted by Interpol, as well as the Sri Lankan government for terrorism. But to Menake, he seemed like a movie star, and she was thrilled. “He was tall and handsome. We had a last photograph taken together.” Once she was dead, that photograph would go on public display and be draped with flowers, as have been other suicide bombers before her. Like those “martyrs,” she was told she’d be known as Mahaveera, a “Great Warrior,” and venerated in a way she had never been in life.
Instead, today, she is incarcerated in a suffocatingly hot 7 x 5 ft cell, which lacks any ventilation or a fan. In solitary confinement, for her own safety, Menake also has no access to water, or a toilet, unless she can persuade highly hostile prison guards to unlock her cell and escort her to both. She sleeps on the bare floor without a mat or sheet. Whether she receives a death sentence or spends the rest of her days behind bars, she knows her life is over without it ever really beginning.
Jan Goodwin is an award-winning journalist and author, who frequently writes on international issues and human rights. She lived and worked in Pakistan for four years.
Also See: Media Tools Counter War Violence Against Women by Ariel Dougherty in this edition of On The Issues Magazine
Also See: Rwanda: Justice Denied by Jan Goodwin in the Fall 1997 edition of On The Issues Magazine