Activist’s killing reverberates in Pakistan

July 18, 2012

Farida Afridi, a 25-year-old women’s rights activist, left her parents’ home early on the morning of July 4, as she typically did. She was walking to her nonprofit organization’s office when two men with Kalashnikovs pulled alongside her on a motorcycle and shot her multiple times, killing her.

Afridi’s killing in the town of Jamrud, in the restive tribal Khyber Agency, shocked Pakistan’s human rights community of nongovernmental organizations, which are no strangers to acts of intimidation and terror, especially against foreigners. Some international NGOs, most recently the Red Cross, have pulled out their personnel.

For activists, Afridi’s death made evident an escalating campaign by Islamist militants against anyone promoting equality for women. Zar Ali Khan Afridi, chairman of the Tribal NGOs Consortium, of which Farida Afridi was a member, said it was the first time a Pakistani woman working for an NGO had been killed by militants.

“We are all afraid,” he said. “If your activities are against fanaticism, if you are talking about human rights, they will kill you.”

Farida Afridi was founder, with her sister Noorzia, of an organization that promotes social and economic development in the Khyber Agency and other semiautonomous tribal areas that border Afghanistan. In such areas, the traditions of purdah are the norm, meaning women are expected to conceal themselves from men.

She was from a part of Khyber that had only one school, but she managed to get an education, Zar Afridi said. She earned a master’s degree and learned English. In 2004, she co-founded her organization, SAWERA, or Society for Appraisal and Women Empowerment in Rural Areas.

Female NGO workers have been accused of not observing cultural norms — not wearing veils, encouraging other women to work outside the home and working alongside male colleagues.

“The militants are labeling the NGOs, especially where women are working, as spreading obscenities and vulgarities,” said a tribal elder in the region, who spoke anonymously for fear of being targeted for his comments and for talking to a female journalist.

For colleagues of Farida Afridi, the message sent by her killers was chillingly direct: “They don’t want any women from NGOs to come to their areas and have discussions with their women, because they think we are propagating Western agendas,” said Zainab Bibi of South Asia Partnership Pakistan, a pro-democracy group. “Women are totally restricted there.”

Another NGO colleague, Sherun Javed of the Aurat Foundation in Peshawar, called Farida Afridi an inspiration: “It’s very dangerous to work in this area. But she said: ‘I am not afraid of death. We have to die one day, and I will work for the women of my area because that is my mission.’ ”

In the days following Afridi’s death, a group of 50 people, including six women, gathered at the Peshawar Press Club to denounce her killing, demand that the government bring her killers to justice, and call on authorities do more to protect human rights workers.

Two massive banners emblazoned with photographs of the young rights worker put a face to the name of the woman whose commitment led to her early death. In both pictures, she was veiled.

Such killings are “un-Islamic,” said Zar Afridi. “It is not even human.”

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