Supporters of "Tanzeem-e-Islami" hold a rally against a US drone missile strike on the country's tribal areas. (Photo: AP)
The scream of 17-year-old Chand Bibi of the Swat Valley has been heard across Pakistan for over a week now. The drone of remotely operated US gunships over the country's mountainous western frontier has been heard for months.
What the world needs to hear now is the voice of Pakistan in response to both the scream and the drone.
Much of the world has by now heard the scream, too, and watched the merciless flogging of the teenage girl as Taliban punishment for alleged transgression of a misogynist code of morality: she had been caught coming out of her house with a male "stranger." The date of the incident was not clear and versions of it differed in minor detail. The local Taliban leader, however, proudly owned up to the punishment meted out for the insinuated, "anti-Islam" offense.
The over 30 lashes shrilling and sobbing Chand received on her buttocks, as she was firmly held face down on the ground, has traumatized large sections of the nation. The women, in particular, were wounded along with the victim. "The whole nation has been flogged," said human rights activist Asma Jehangir. Talking of the reported official truce with the Taliban in Swat (close to the capital, Islamabad), she added that this had turned out be "a surrender" to the militants.
Journalist Ayeda Naqvi wrote: "Every woman who has ever been dictated to by a self-proclaimed guardian of faith, every woman who has been told to adopt others' views on what modesty means knows what it is to be a Chand Bibi."
"'Raise your voices loud in protest" - that was the call of an editorial in the well-known Pakistani daily, News. It told readers: "You choose. Because if you don't choose, and the tide rolls around the corner of your street and it is your wife or daughter or sister or mother screaming in front of you as she is flogged - then you have nobody to blame but yourselves."
Ayesha Siddiqa, acclaimed author of "Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan's Military Economy," put the issue in a larger perspective, by terming the girl's tormentors as "Zia's children." She was calling the Taliban regime in Swat and elsewhere a legacy of former military dictator Zia ul-Haq, who gave the fundamentalists far more than a foothold in the system.
The outrage was strong enough to make the current establishment claim to share it as well. President Asif Ali Zadari called the incident an instance of "barbarism." Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani vowed to assert the government's "authority" in Swat. More enthusiastically received than these inadequate expressions of indignation was the swift, suo motu action in the case by Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, recently restored in office after a popular agitation.
Justice Chaudhry initiated a hearing of the case by a specially established Bench, and ordered production of the victim in his court. While welcoming the action, knowledgeable observers doubted both the ability and desire of the government to comply with the directive. In their view, the victim had to be placed in "a secure environment" (as one of the observers put it) before the court order could be acted upon.
The skeptical observers have been vindicated. According to the report of a local official inquiry submitted to the court, Chand has denied the flogging. Justice Chaudhry has had to adjourn the hearing of the case indefinitely, while asking for a further investigation by the government. Tongues are wagging, of course, about the girl making her statement under duress, but the Taliban could not care less.
Nor could the US military authorities in Pakistan care less about the response of the country to the drone offensive that has caused the death and displacement of an increasing number of innocent civilians as well in Pashtun areas. The response to the attacks, estimated at 40 since last August and entailing a loss of over 300 non-Taliban lives, has been resoundingly disapproving.
What deserves to be noted, in particular, is that the voices against the atrocity in Swat and the aerial attacks on tribal areas have emanated from the same quarters as well. Illustrative was the indignation at both that found spirited expression at a Lahore rally of thousands, mobilized jointly by social, political and trade union organizations, the other day. The participants raised slogans against "Talibanization of Pakistan," as well as "state terrorism." The speakers denounced the oppression of women in Swat as well as the drone offensive against ordinary people forced to flee the frontier areas.
Washington will be wise not to read Pakistan's revulsion against the diabolic Taliban ways as a promise of popular acceptance of the drones. Pervez Hoodbhoy, a forthright and prominent opponent of fundamentalism in Pakistan, writes: "Drones, machine and human, have drenched Pakistan with the blood of innocents. On the one side are US-made drones such as the MQ-1B General Dynamics Predator - a remote-controlled, self-propelled, missile-bearing aerial system. On the other side are the low-tech human drones, armed with explosive vests stuffed with ball bearings and nails. These lethal engines of destruction, programmed by remote handlers, are very different. But neither asks why it must kill, nor cares about the death and suffering it causes."
The clamorous voices, raised in response to the scream and the drone, do not contradict each other. They together represent an increasing, common resolve of the Pakistani people to combat terrorism, but on their own terms.