Female vigilantes armed with sticks demanding sharia law? If anyone else has been perplexed by news out of Pakistan lately, the article in the latest New Yorker will provide some context (although it still can't do the impossible and make me understand why young women will risk their lives just to lose their human rights). The story chronicles how Islamabad has gone from a "dull city" of industrialists and bureaucrats to a capital riddled with upheaval on both sides -- protesting lawyers and judges fighting for democratic rule and radical religious vigilante students fighting for a Taliban-style dictatorship.
What has struck me about the story is that on both sides, women are playing pivotal roles in ways that would be unusual even in a Western nation. Asma Jahangir, an outspoken feminist and human rights lawyer, is leading the fight against President Pervez Musharraf's military rule with the country's lawyers and judges. On the other side, young radical revolutionaries in burqas have taken to the streets, burning books, threatening video-store owners and kidnapping women rumored to be prostitutes, then forcing them to apologize for their sinful ways in public. They, along with the militant brethren from their madrasah Lal Masjid, even kidnapped policemen, attacked government buildings and terrorized the city. Last month, after remaining remarkably passive for months, Musharraf laid siege to Lal Masjid, leading to a 10-day standoff, an attack and over 100 dead.
Since then, suicide bombers assumed to be sympathetic to the Lal Masjid have killed more than 70 people, including one today who targeted the lawyers movement and killed more than 17 people. Protests are also a regular occurrence -- just today 1,500 women and children took to the streets of Karachi to protest the Lal Masjid crackdown and call for Musharraf to step down. According to a story in the Hindu, small children "carried banners stating: 'Shame on moderate extremists' and 'Shame on enlightened militants.'"
Sitting on the other side of the globe, it's hard to grock the idea that women are eager to embrace a legal system that would strip them of their rights. But one editorial in the International News today suggests that these women are working passionately against their own interests because, being raised within the madrasah, they are products of a "total institution" and therefore incapable of acting on their own behalf. A concept coined by American sociologist Erving Goffman, the total institution "encompasses the whole being of its inmate. It undercuts the resident's individuality. It disregards his or her dignity. It subjects the individual to a regimented pattern of life that has little or nothing to do with the person's own desires or inclinations. And it is inescapable."