I have just returned from Pakistan where I was invited to support the efforts of women on the ground who are refusing to be terrified and silenced in the face of recent bombings and attacks. This was my fifth trip to Pakistan over the last fifteen years. I was there in 1994 when I followed a group of 500 Bosnian refugees who were promised swimming pools, bungalows and jobs, and ended up essentially stranded for five years at the Haji Complex, a barren site in Rawalpindi for pilgrims on the way to Mecca. That support offered by the Pakistani government to the Bosnian refugees was more than most were offering at the time. I went back to Pakistan in 1999 when I first met RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan) and traveled with them into Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, leaving from Peshawar, through the Khyber Pass. I have made this trip several times since then. I was there in 2003 when women activists and artists presented the first production of The Vagina Monologues, a clandestine production in Islamabad that afterwards moved to public performances in Lahore and Karachi.
I was not prepared for the new Islamabad that I met, a city essentially under siege. A maze of 50 check points. People hardly leaving their houses. Schools closed for a month at a time. The fancy Serena Hotel surrounded, a fortress. The U.S. embassy an enclave, protected by miles of stone barricades and elaborate barbed wire. Inside the embassy is another world, a getaway, a club, a café, Pilates classes, and a shopping bazaar imported for the 800 or so American employees the day I was there. No one allowed out. A resident of Islamabad told me, "There weren't barricades and now there are. We're appalled. We're under threat... Because they're targets, we're targets. There were bomb blasts near us and all the windows were blown out of my house. My sister refuses to sleep in a room alone."
There is sense of musical chairs. If you move fast enough and are clever enough, the suicide bomber will not land on you. Every place is a target. One woman told me that she has come to make arbitrary decisions. She doesn't go to the Jinnah market. It feels central. This constant guessing and not knowing makes for terrible and constant anxiety. Everyone seems traumatized in one way or another.
I did a survey, asking people who they thought was doing the bombing and I got many answers. Most people said they had no idea. They did not know the political intentions of the bombings, didn't know who the bombers were or what they wanted. One person told me "...with the Contras [in Nicaragua] and the Tamils [in Sri Lanka], their intent was clear. Here it is an invisible evil. No one is claming it." Many thought it was the work of the Pakistani Taliban although no one thought all the bombings were done by them (the Taliban itself has only claimed responsibility for some of the bombings). There were many rumors and conspiracy theories. Since there is now talk of Blackwater operating in Pakistan, there are those who believe the U.S. is in cahoots with the Taliban (the theory is that if the U.S. has a deliberate foreign policy to keep the streets destabilized, they would have an excuse to intervene and occupy), or that the ISI (the Pakistani intelligence agency) is in cahoots with the U.S. and they are behind the bombings to turn the population against the Taliban. Some thought it was the Pakistani army, or the Taliban within the army. Several people talked about the fact they when they arrest people for the bombings, the stories die quickly and when there is a bomb blast police hose down the area and erase the evidence. Some thought the violence was sponsored by the Indian government. One woman from Swat told me, "We, the common people don't know what's going on. We are pawns. We are suffering at their hands. Whatever their plan is we wish they would get on with it."
I traveled to Rawalpindi, a bustling and madly crowded town right next to the capital. Once outside Islamabad, where the international groups and embassies are stationed and where western hotels exist, there is hardly a checkpoint. No security, no protection for the majority of the population who seem to be on the frontlines of the killing. It is very reminiscent of Iraq and the Green Zone. I go to visit a safe house run by a long time activist Shahnaz Bukhari. The house provides support and refuge for women who have been acid burned -- usually by their husbands. I meet Fauzia*, a 48-year-old woman, who is fully covered in a black chador. After we talk for a while and she begins to trust me, she removes the black veil and her face is a monstrous vision, melted and swollen, no ears, no eyes, she is completely blind. When she was young she married a man who did not like to work. She was working many jobs to support him and their family. She discovered he secretly got married to another women using her money. Eventually she asked for a divorce. After six years of being separated, he started blackmailing her to give him their kids or money. She had bought a plot of land. He was after it. She finally gave it to him, thinking he would leave her alone. She brought him the documents for the land. He said he was satisfied and wouldn't take the kids. He sent them out to have sodas to celebrate. Then he burnt her with acid. Threw it in her face. She told me, "When I say my prayers, I pray that he has been crippled. I don't want him to die. I want him to suffer." She brought her case to court. Her husband came once and then he vanished. She is now speaking out, standing up, showing her face. She wants other women to punish these perpetrators. There are 2,000 burn cases a year. The government is not supporting these cases or women. She is trying to create a network to pressure hospitals and everyone involved to support the women.
At the shelter, I am surprised to find a very handsome young man, Naeem*, and his very adorable son. They are dressed in matching gray cotton suits. It is only a few minutes into the interview that I realize Naeem is really Abaaz*, a 24-year-old woman. Abaaz was married off when she was 13 to a man who was 26. He abused her, tortured her mentally. He threw her out when she was 17 because he took another woman. Abaaz was left on her own with a child on the streets. She had to find a way to survive. She went to a men's barber and had her hair cut. Then she found suitable clothing, lowered her voice and changed her name. She got a vending stand and sells fruits and vegetables. She has achieved success with her business and her identity and is able to support herself and son. I asked her if she is happy living like this. "No, I do not like living as a man. My heart knows how I feel. But I am more secure. No one harasses me. I have learned street slang like the boys use. I mainly have male friends." I ask her son how he feels. "I call my mother brother Naeem in the streets, but I do not like that she can't be a woman. I want her to be in the house. At home she is different. She can be my mother." I ask if she will get married again. She says, "I can't be that fool again." She worries about money. She wants her son to go to school. She tells me it's embarrassing to be a boy. "When things are favorable, I'll be a girl again. The shawl, the symbol of my pride, I had to leave. I'll be happy when my son grows up and I can sit at home in my chair and wear my shawl. I will be happy then when I can live my last years as a woman."
I return that evening to Islamabad and am joined by a group of very powerful women. We talk for hours. I meet Samar Minallah -- an activist lawyer. She focuses primarily on highlighting problems of women in the Northwest Province of Pakistan. She has been fighting a practice called "retribution" where girls are traded to resolve conflict between men. Recently she was involved in a case where a man killed another man's dog and instead of a fight ensuing, the man who killed the dog gave the aggrieved man 15 girls between the ages of six months to seven years old. These girls then became the aggrieved man's possessions, to be raped, enslaved, treated in any way the man desired. Fifteen girls for one dead dog. This is a common practice. A practice Samar has been fighting against. In the case of the dog, she called the father of the girls and asked if it was true. She recorded the conversation. The father proudly announced that he had traded his daughters. Samar went to the human rights commission of Pakistan. She reported the case to a policeman. The father called Samar's son and told him "Your mother is going to die very soon." Fortunately, Samar was able to prosecute the case and the man went to jail. She then told me of the story that has put her life in much bigger jeopardy.
"I live in Swat. In April, I was told that a 16-year-old girl had been flogged by the Taliban. Beating women has nothing to do with our culture or religion. The girl had come from a far off village in Swat. She had refused a marriage proposal from a good for nothing Taliban boy. The boy then claimed the girl had an illicit relationship with her father-in-law. The woman was flogged publicly. Many photographed and videoed the flogging on their mobile phones and sent it around." Samar took the video and posted it on Facebook. She posted it with her name and email. She attached a message, "If you don't wake up today, this will happen to you." Because she identified herself, her life was immediately endangered. When I asked her why she took such a risk, she said "No one is taking responsibility for anything. There is no credibility or impact if you do not sign your name or take responsibility." The Taliban told Samar they were sending five suicide bombers to her house. This did not stop her. They tried to discredit her. They said it was a 14 year old video, said she manufactured it in her house. They said she was a known mad woman. Certain people stopped taking her phone calls. Some people removed her from their Facebook. She went on Pakistani TV. Samar did not use a drone or an AK-47, but she put the Taliban on the defensive. They demanded she be handed over, (like the 15 girls) but her actions spurred a revulsion and Pakistan people mobilized in the streets to protest. The Taliban claimed Samar had damaged their reputation in the international press. They put a fatwa against her. "I was shattered because of my children. I cried on the phone afraid for my children. I had the option of leaving Pakistan. To leave for me would have been death. I have a role to play in the theater against women's rights violations. A few embassies called and asked if I wanted asylum. I would never leave Pakistan. My daughter was crying because she couldn't leave her cats. I felt guilty I had done this to my kids. My friends gave us refuge." Samar stopped talking publicly for three months. Now she is back at it, fighting the cases. "I'm in a make shift home now. No landline. It's not just the Taliban I am afraid of. It is the Taliban mind set. Most suicide bombers are clean-shaven, look just like us. I am still getting horrible emails from people I don't know. People will get brownie points in heaven for killing me. Of course I am afraid of getting picked up, abused, raped, tortured. That is the most terrifying, not death. There are hundreds of missing people in Pakistan. But how can I stop. How can I let them win?"
The condition of women has never been elevated in Pakistan (I do not single Pakistan out as I have yet to find a country where the status of women is elevated), but the current climate of terror, militarism, and Talibanization has escalated and licensed a brutal gender oppression, inhumanity and violence. A male leader from Chitral, a formerly progressive town in the frontier told me, "The Taliban hasn't arrived yet physically, but they have mentally. Already women are not going out of the house, leaving jobs, covering themselves when they have never been covered."
Religious extremism is a kind of plague. It seizes the mind, body and soul. It creates a kind of slow terror that invades cell by cell and feeds off the preexisting patriarchal traditions and conditioning in women. Then, there are the various practices that enforce that conditioning: acid burning, retribution, honor killing, flogging, burying women alive, etc. Some of these stories get out to the West from time to time; but, what rarely gets out are the stories of women who are resisting this violence and fighting with their lives for human rights.
After listening to many women's stories, I am struck with their brilliance in constructing strategies that are not rooted in war or violence, but rather in courage, enabling justice, transformation and real security. There is another Pakistan -- the Pakistan of women academics running women studies programs, women demonstrating in front of the judiciary, speaking out on television, fighting law suits in protection of women's rights, harboring and giving refuge to women who are acid burned. There is the mother obsessively seeking justice for her daughter who she believes was poisoned by a Mullah after he raped her, the woman fighting off the Taliban after they murdered her husband in Swat. Activists like Tahira Addullan, who has been in the human rights and women's movement 30 years, always threatened, arrested twice, fiercely fighting for the restoration of an independent judiciary. And, Nighat Rizvi, who produced a sold out event to raise awareness about violence against women in the middle of a paralyzed city, and who screened her documentary on the inhumane conditions for women in the recent IDP camps.
These women understand that the major threat to Pakistan is not terrorism but poverty, malnutrition, (60 percent of the children are now born moderately stunted) lack of education, HIV, violence against women, and corruption of the government. Women who know that the U.S. war in Afghanistan escalates violence in Pakistan, that computer driven drones killing hundreds of innocent people enrages those who lose their loved ones and that creates more terrorists. They know their lives are being manipulated, that the millions of dollars the U.S. sends never reaches them or the people (but goes to the corrupt leaders and elites). That the future of their country is essentially in their hands, as the government, the army, the security forces are not focused on the struggles that occupy their daily existence.
As I leave Pakistan, I think of Fauzia, Abaaz and Samar. One reveals her destroyed face to stop the burning of others, one disguises her face to support her child and protect her security, one uploads an explosive video on Facebook to expose and stop a hideous practice. Each one of these strategies involved creativity, originality, bravery and very little money. I think the U.S. government and the military, the Pakistani government and army could all take heed from the vision and bravery and work of women like these. The change needs to come from the ground. Religious extremism is a virus. It feeds on poverty, malnutrition, humiliation, sexism and fear. As President Obama gets ready to formally announce his plans for a troop increase in Afghanistan, we must recognize that putting more US troops on the ground will only increase the violence, bombings and terror in the region. Our strongest methods of inoculation are to feed, help educate and honor the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan and to support the women, providing them with resources to do what they need to do, what they know how to do.
*Names have been changed to protect their identity.
Eve Ensler, a playwright and activist, is the founder of V-Day, a global movement to end violence against women and girls.
This article originally appeared at Huffington Post.