The Asian Voice

How Pakistan's identity crisis gives rise to female radicalisation: Dawn columnist

Pakistan's army spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor gives details of captured would-be female suicide bomber Naureen Leghari (on screen) during a press conference in Rawalpindi on April 17, 2017.
Pakistan's army spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor gives details of captured would-be female suicide bomber Naureen Leghari (on screen) during a press conference in Rawalpindi on April 17, 2017.PHOTO: AFP
Malala Yousafzai meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Ottawa, Ontario on April 12, 2017.
Malala Yousafzai meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Ottawa, Ontario on April 12, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

KARACHI (DAWN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Two young Pakistani women, two different trajectories. Within days of Malala Yousafzai being named United Nations ambassador of peace, Naureen Leghari was arrested in Lahore before she could carry out a suicide bombing against the Christian community on Easter.

From Nobel Prize and Oscar winners to sportswomen and scientists, we have become accustomed to high-achieving women symbolising Pakistan's progress and progressiveness. But there is another side to the story, embodied by women such as MIT-trained neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui and now Leghari - the daughter of an academic, herself a medical student, radicalised online, married to a militant and willing to murder dozens.

The Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), released Leghari's confessional video, presumably to showcase the efficacy of the intelligence and security forces in preventing militant attacks. But what the clip - showing an articulate and self-possessed woman speaking matter-of-factly about a suicide attack - truly highlights is the degree to which Pakistani society has become vulnerable to radicalisation.

Leghari's example will be used to reiterate the fact that Pakistan's university campuses, far from being spaces of enlightenment, are ideological battlegrounds, dominated by violent extremist voices - a fact also driven home by the brutal lynching of journalism student, Mashal Khan, and Bachelor of Business Administration granduate Saad Aziz's conviction for the 2015 bus attack in Safoora Chowk in Karachi, that left over 40 dead. A recent Sindh Counterterrorism Department survey of 500 'hardcore' militants found that 64 had Master's degrees, and 70 had Bachelor's degrees.

This should come as no surprise. Our campuses are stifling environments that do not foster critical thinking or debate. University-age youth are meant to be fired up by ideological issues, political questions, and perceptions of injustice. These should be addressed through scholarship, discussion and student activism. In the absence of productive channels, it is no wonder that students are radicalised or willing to participate in mob violence.

Leghari's case will also spur a regressive debate about social media and calls for stricter controls regarding internet access. That would be hugely counterproductive. The state's obsession with online censorship and surveillance has prevented progress towards media literacy, digital safety and inculcating critical consumption skills among youth to enable them to better contextualise and resist violent extremist propaganda.

What we will not have is a broader conversation about a society in flux, one in which a medical student wants to escape to the land of khilafa (caliphate) rather than pursue a career and retain her familial and social links. How did we come to this?

The phenomenon of female radicalisation in Pakistan has not yet been seriously considered. Some scholarship aside, the enthusiasm over Al Huda, a chain of Islamic schools for women, was perceived to be a joke or a nuisance. Many families welcomed the growing conservatism of their women, making them easier to control.

This benign view assumes that women are not part of the same political and ideological landscape that men are; that they are not capable consumers of media and political discourse; that they cannot be moved to action.

But they can be, particularly as they are overwhelmed by the mixed messages and competing demands of a society in the midst of an identity crisis. Pakistani women are subject to a resilient patriarchy in a society that increasingly requires them to be educated and contribute to double-income households. They must juggle expectations of their social role and behaviour generated both by Bollywood and religious talk shows.

They must navigate a world in which television personality and fashion designer Junaid Jamshed could both profit off women as consumers of his fashion brand and appear on a morning talk show (hosted by a woman) and argue against women being allowed to drive. Such an environment inevitably engenders feelings of alienation and confusion, without giving women the skills or space to process and channel those feelings.

In the midst of the contradictions and hypocrisies, the simplicity of the messaging of the militant Islamic State group holds appeal. And it offers what women are seeking: dignity, purpose, protection. Research on the so-called 'brides of IS' has shown that women are radicalised by the same issues as men: a perception that the ummah is under attack, frustration over the international community's indifference to Muslim suffering, a sense of religious duty, the desire to meaningfully contribute to a utopian society, a craving for comradeship.

To prevent more Legharis from emerging from our campuses, our political parties - and educators, media personalities, and civil society representatives - must take up the issues that really affect modern women: access to education, workplace equality, freedom of movement, physical safety. Tackling these issues will help women manage the frustrations our society presents, and undermine the appeal of radical narratives.