In the Olympic Sports Stadium, around thirty thousand men took their comfortable place to watch the show. The cheerleaders were ready to buck the sport up with their chants already coined, which they forced upon the crowd. In this Olympic Stadium, one could see an eager (and a not-so-eager) crowd buying tea, biscuits, nuts etc to kill time while they waited for the show; the Friday recreation.

This scene was a real life situation in Kabul in the winter of 1998. The Olympic Sports Stadium was set up for the weekly show of amputations, lashes, beheadings et al. This Friday, in February 1998, a 28 year old woman was to receive 100 lashes for walking with a man who was not her relative; a crime that proved her ‘adultery,’ and two men were to get their hands amputated for stealing eatables.

The usual penal code of the regime for women in Afghanistan at the time included lashes if seen with na-mehram (men who are not blood-relatives); revealing nails for wearing nail polish or any other cosmetics; public whipping and beating for not wearing burqas long enough to cover their ankles (already covered by their tunics though), or buying goods from a male shopkeeper, or going to school, college or their workplace alone, to name but a few.

There was a complete ban on women getting treatment from male doctors, girls going to school, women working in the media, women wearing bright colors and high heels, women playing sports or entering sports clubs, women riding bicycles or motorbikes even behind their mehrams. No women gatherings were allowed on festive occasions like Eid or for any recreational purpose. Female public baths and toilets were closed permanently.

A public toilet for women in a market or a busy public place in Kabul is now a little stamp that says they have claimed their place in the social space. It acts as a little announcement that says they have a right to be there. They would go there regularly and spend time there.

Now, we come to their comrades in Pakistan. Mere extension of their style of governance was seen in Swat from roughly 2007 to 2009 when the Pakistan Army rooted them out. Well, they appeared to have done it initially at least, however selective it was. Swat women who had the highest rate of education in the region and the highest representation in public and social spheres, suddenly had to deal with public lynching, whipping, public humiliation, being dragged by their hair and being stoned to death.

Khooni Chowk of Swat is still red with the blood of many. Its name that has now been changed to Farooq Shaheed Chowk has been of little help. When I visited it in 2010, I could not stop thinking about beautiful young Shabana, the famous dancer of Swat who was badly beaten up, dragged to Khooni Chowk and hanged there. Her body was kept hanging for several days. Saira Bibi, another woman from Ashar Band in Swat valley, was whipped in the chowk twenty times because someone accused her of being unfaithful to her husband while he worked in a neighboring town. Men on such occasions were forced to be present at the venue. As per reports in the national media in 2010, many men resented this treatment of their women but could not do anything.

Women in Swat were facing all this from 2007-9 because of the ‘crimes’ listed above that their Afghan sisters had to deal with in the late 1990s. There was a ban on girls’ education, women’s employment outside the house, movement without male relatives, recreational activities, and they had to observe a dress code imposed by the militant regime in Swat. The regime’s head was using radio extensively, but all media was entirely closed for women.

The ones who enforced this cruel code under the cover of religion in Kabul in the 1990s and those who did it in Swat in 2009 came from the same ideology: the Taliban. They – further classified into good and bad – represented the same mindset and political goals. Mulla Fazlullah, the man who led the insurgency in Swat, now heads the banned Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan that routinely attacks Pakistan’s armed forces and civilians.

One of the ardent supporters of the Taliban insurgency and eventually a nominee for the negotiations committee from the Taliban side, Maulvi Abdul Aziz in a recent TV show lamented about how a country could be Islamic when its women sit in Parliament. Many clean-shaven, educated, modern-looking, young and middle-aged men in the ruling PML-N as well as many other parties share his sentiment about the presence of women in Parliament. Over the last few months, many of them have debated this with me at official and personal gatherings. This is a frightening truth.

The fact that the battle that women fought alone in Kabul and Swat, is not even a point in the agenda of negotiations committees, is beyond worrying. None of the media talk shows or Op-ed pieces or news items on front pages or politicians shrieking ‘peace’ with frothing mouths, have even once spoken a word about the war their ‘stakeholders’ wage upon women. If the killers can be your stakeholders for peace, why are we not even a point in your agenda, let alone part of the process? What kind of peace are you looking for without mentioning a word about the most vicious vendetta that they harbor? How are you people, all men, dealing with the possibility of the aggression and hostility which we have already faced at their hands in Kabul and in Swat and now in Waziristan?

The Karzai government in Kabul, the Obama administration working for its interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the Pakistan government; when you sit with the good and the bad Taliban, the least you can do for the women of this fateful region is, settle this for once and for all. Bring us to the table and we will show you we have a stronger spine. We will look into their eyes and claim our rights.

On this International Women’s Day, we vow that we will not tolerate any compromise of our rights. Breathing in every sense and doing it freely is our inalienable right that the powers of the world and of Pakistan cannot deny us. We in Pakistan have always fought for it. We have brought political parties into power throughout the world. We can bring you down as well, if the narrative doesn’t involve us. Indeed, we are the biggest stakeholders here, Mr. Prime Minister.

The writer is an Islamabad based campaigner for human rights and works on parliamentary strengthening and democratic governance.

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