Being female in this part of the world – or in any other part of the world for that matter – has never been easy but, for many years, educated Pakistani women had, in many ways, an easier time of it than their sisters in, for example, some African nations where women, especially those lucky enough to have enjoyed the privilege of education, were often given a very hard time of it and not taken seriously in the employment arena until recent years.

Here in Pakistan, however, women in general and educated women in particular, were always treated with a reasonable amount of respect and were, until comparatively recently, quite safe and secure to go about the daily business of life and work – younger generations to school, college and university – unmolested by all except for an extremely small percent of idiots who had conveniently forgotten that ‘the world lies in your mother’s feet’, that without women there would be no life, no continuity of the species et al.

Sadly though, this situation has, especially over the last two decades, been on a slow slide as extremism gained in strength and popularity until, as during the last couple of years, derogatory treatment of the female sex has taken off at apparently breakneck speed – pun intended as females are very much in the ‘firing line’ if in high-profile jobs– and in this so-called ‘Land of The Pure’, has reached terrifying proportions.

Take, for instance, the case of Humeera (*name changed for security reasons as are the names of anyone mentioned here) who is a fully qualified lawyer, her qualifications including honours gained overseas, a mother of two soon to be teenage children, who happens to be a divorcee from a Pathan background and resides, with her parents in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where, she says, ‘There is something very bad in the air’ being breathed and where, in her own words: ‘When I was offered work in accordance with my qualifications, my father – my brother, a policeman, was gunned down a few years when he tried to prevent the kidnapping of a child while on duty – told me that he had already lost a son and did not want to lose his daughter too, plus, that I must think of my children. My father is a highly respected person with an army background and is increasingly concerned about the growth of extremism, in not just the north of the country but in Pakistan as a whole, and I fully understand his point. The Pakistan I grew up in has vanished. I look around me and see an increasingly strange, menacing and dangerous land and seriously wonder what kind of world my children will have to survive in. Until recently I used to feel quite comfortable going to the local cloth bazaar but I stopped: The atmosphere, the sense of impending danger is really that bad. I would very much like to work, to follow the career I am trained for, to set a good and proud example for my own son and daughter to follow but, as a direct result of extremism, I cannot. It is that simple – that serious – that terrifying. I need to live, to do the best I can for my children. Too go out to work is to invite death. No thanks.’

Gulshan, a qualified teacher with ancestral roots in a small village outside Peshawar, echoes Humeera’s story: ‘It was always my dream to be a teacher and I worked long and hard to achieve this. I even, much to my parent’s disquiet, refused to get married as I so desperately wanted to reach my goal. I dedicated my life to teaching first primary school and then older girls and loved my profession dearly. When I was still, out of stubbornness, single at the age of 30, my parents stopped trying to find me a husband, telling me that I would realize, in time, that I had thrown my life away but this I will never believe. Teaching is my life but, I am sorry to say, that I have, aside from private tuitions, been mostly unemployed for over a year now as parents in this border region are no longer sending their girls to school and, the school I worked in for so many years, was blown up b extremists some months ago and, from what I know and from what I feel in my bones, is unlikely to be rebuild in the foreseeable future. To be born female – I am speaking of female in Pathan culture – used to be to be born in to a life where you would be honoured, first by your family, then by your tribe and then, married or un-married, by society if you chose to follow a decent career but, I hate to make this observation, the situation is no longer this way. As society changes and extremism digs in deep, women are being forced, educated women protesting if they dare, back in to the ‘char diwari’ to be treated as nothing more than invisible slaves. The code ancient, honourable code of ‘Pushuntunwali’ is, along with the lives of women, being raped by extremists who have no understanding of either Islam or of the traditional respect given to Pathan women by the society in which, I am now speaking in past tense and this makes me weep, Pathan women lived. This way – this ‘foreign’ way – is not the way it should be.’

These two educated women, from educated Pathan families, are highly representative of the region in which they live: Their words and predicaments should serve as a dire warning to females throughout the length and breadth of this increasingly fragile country but – as is always the case these days – is anyone out there listening and, more importantly, does anyone really care?

The writer has authored two books titled The Gun Tree:  One Woman’s War, The Parwan Wind - Dust Motes and lives in Pakistan.

Email:zahrahnasir@hotmail.com