This might come as a surprise to people who follow mainstream media’s coverage of Pakistan: one of the most controversial student organizations in the country is led by a woman.
Banuk Karima Baloch is the chairperson of the Baloch Student Organization (BSO-Azad), the largest ethnic Baloch student body in the country, which was banned by Pakistan in 2013 for being involved in “terrorism.”
Karima's organization plays a major role in mobilizing young dissidents and separatists in Balochistan, the country's southwestern province, which is plagued by poverty, sectarian violence and an insurgency against the Pakistani state.
BSO-Azad was established in 2002 by Allah Nazar Baloch, a well-known separatist fighter. He is currently the commander of the banned Baloch Liberation Front (BLF), the most active militant group in the Baloch armed resistance against the Pakistani state.
Besides these very pertinent ground realities, women in Balochistan face additional challenges: they live in Pakistan's least developed province, where men dominate public life; maternity mortality rates here are among the highest in Asia and female literacy rates in the province are the lowest in the country.
Yet in recent years, Baloch women have been at the forefront of trying to call attention to Balochistan's “missing people“, one of the ugly and underreported aspects of the insurgency in Balochistan. In 2013 alone, 116 bodies were found across the province, 87 of which were identified by families who accused Pakistan’s security agencies of abducting their loved ones. According to the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, since 2010, the bodies of hundreds of Balochistan’s missing men have turned up bearing torture marks.
In May, Karima spoke about Baloch women, their role in the current freedom struggle and her aspirations for Balochistan in an interview conducted in Urdu. I translated the original interview into English for my blog Collateral Damage. Below is an excerpt of the translated interview.
This is the first time a woman is the head of a student organization in Balochistan. What are your feelings on being called to lead BSO-Azad?
Banuk Karima Baloch (BKB): Since in our organization there is no gender discrimination, men and women are participating in the national struggle side by side. During my time as the leader of the organization, I have never felt that I am different or inferior based on the fact that I am a woman. However, I am happy that the participation of my Baloch sisters in the freedom struggle has changed the thinking of the Baloch society toward women. With the resurrection of the national movement, many conservative traditions have now disappeared. Baloch women are, compared to the past, a lot more free and active.
In the present situation where the margin for legal political activities in Balochistan is becoming thinner and thinner, what strategy do you plan to adopt?
BKB: For us, peaceful struggle has been turned into a lethal poison. During the previous three years, many of our members have been brutally killed and thousands have been abducted. Two months back, the chairman of my organization was kidnapped right in front of my eyes. Before that, in 2009, the vice-chairman of our organization Zakir Majeed was kidnapped by the secret services while he was attending a crowded procession. He is still missing. Alongside the BSO-Azad, Majeed’s family struggled tirelessly for his released but in vain.
What I want to say is that the noose has been tightened around our necks. But regardless of that, we continue to persist. Even if the state continues to behave toward us as if it has no conscience, we will not relent from our peaceful and just struggle. Peaceful struggle is our right under international law. The more the savagery of the state, the more we will continue to resist, persevere and rise.
Women of Balochistan are playing an important role in the campaign for missing people. What impact will this phenomenon have on the Baloch nationalist movement? How does the Baloch society react to the participation of women in political activities?
BKB: As I stated, attitudes toward women in the Baloch society have evidently changed. Today, people feel proud at the participation of women in the national movement. Banuk Farzana, Banuk Sami Baloch and the rest of the sisters, due to their brave efforts, are looked upon as the symbols of the national movement. If you look at it, our population is small and is geographically dispersed; and so the women, who are half of our population, have played an instrumental role in solidifying our movement.
I also want to point out that the state and its agencies are left scratching their heads thanks to this trend. They are trying to come up with new ways to harass and threaten Baloch women so that their progress could be curtailed, so that they are unable to participate in the national movement. Last year, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, in the Baloch area of Quetta, carried out a bomb attack inside a girls’ college. The creation of a new Islamic group in Panjgur recently and the threats to shut down women’s education are other examples of the state policy. Last year in Turbat, Pakistani secret and security services raided a couple of education institutes, destroyed all the education materials, and later sold those institutes. These were those institutions where education and progress of women was encouraged and preferred.
What is your view on the present social and economic condition of women in Balochistan? What are the main challenges and how can they be overcome?
BKB: Despite being laden with natural resources, Balochistan is one of the least developed areas in the world. It is not just the women who are affected by the colonial rule Pakistan has imposed on us; every single Baloch person is forced to live a life of a second-class citizen. According the government’s own statistics, 52.2 percent of of the population of Balochistan is suffering from malnutrition. But in reality, a far higher number is malnourished. Apart from that, the UN Population Fund has noted that the infant mortality rate is at extremely dangerous levels. Every 20 minutes, a woman dies during childbirth.
The point that I am trying to make is that it is due to the oppressive system Pakistan has imposed on us and the public’s ignorance about it that people are under so much suffering. If Balochistan does not free itself from Pakistani rule, it will continue to suffer from poverty, destitution, and social and cultural decay.
Is there any particular female figure in the history of Balochistan who inspires you?
BKB: In Baloch history, I pay tribute to Hatun Bibi and the sacrifices she made in the struggle against the occupiers of Balochistan in Iran. She bravely fought alongside her family, especially Dad Shah, against the enemies.
Are there any efforts in hand on your part to contact the student organizations of other provinces, particularly Sindh, in order to enlarge your solidarity base?
BKB: Various student organizations have helped us in our campaign to demand the release of BSO-Azad’s chairman Zahid Baloch. In Karachi and elsewhere, they held protests and rallies in our support. In many areas, human rights groups have shown deep solidarity with us and with Lateef Johar, who is on a hunger strike unto death. We are trying to increase our collaboration with these groups; at least on the grounds of solidarity, we should remain associated and keep our relations going.
What message would you like to convey to the people, especially to the women of Pakistan?
BKB: I would like the Baloch people, especially women, to focus on education and become part of the fight against tyranny and slavery, so that Balochistan can be freed and made into an exemplary nation where there is no discrimination based on ethnicity, caste, gender, class, etc.