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Pakistanís slave trade (continued)

BY ANDREW BUSHELL

ECONOMISTS HAVE argued that cheap labor is good for the economy, and in fact the influx of Afghan workers into Peshawar has turned a once sleepy city into a bustling metropolis with increased property values. Over 70 percent of businesses are owned by Afghans who were wealthy enough to get out before the Taliban took over and to purchase fake Pakistani documents. The prosperous Afghans in Peshawar have no qualms about hiring their fellow countrymen as indentured servants.

Jabbar Nassery, a wealthy moneychanger in the Chowk Yadgar financial district, made over $150,000 last year ó a stratospheric sum for Pakistan. When asked if he had any thoughts about moving to the West, he asks, why? "I have two brothers in England, one in France, and another in Germany," he says. "They work from early morning until late night. They worry about expenses. I have a driver, a watchman, a cook, and a maid. How could I have that in the West?"

When asked if he thinks that that human labor is used efficiently, Nassery says, "These are poor people, and they need money. We have a duty to help them, and so we employ them ó and we help them ó giving them food and medication when they are sick. I gave money once so a daughter could get married."

Nassery brings up an important point. Even in a culture that guarantees a place in heaven for a man who can educate and marry off a daughter, female children are expensive because the brideís family must pay the lionís share of marriage expenses. The traditional three-day wedding feast, dowry, and jewelry combined can beggar well-off families if they have more than two or three girls. Such expenses are usually offered as an excuse when the poor sell their children to men like Arbab.

Usma (also probably not her real name), an Afghan prostitute in Peshawar, said she was 12 when her family sold her to a man. "We were crossing the border [into Pakistan] and had no money to eat. The man gave them $80, so my mother told me to go with Akbar.

"After Akbar found other girls at the border, he put all 17 of us in a truck and took us to Jamrud. I stood on the dais and men offered Arbab dowries for me. Initially I was proud to earn such a high dowry price at Jamrud, but then the man refused to marry me and instead sent me out with his friends." These girls also donít see any of the dowry money given to Mr. Arbab. According to dozens of buyers interviewed, the girls are disposable ó and most donít live to the age of 30. When asked in what way the girls are disposable, the men shrug and smile.

When asked about how she felt, Usma started to cry. "While I was with my first man, Khoram, the whole time I was thinking how much I wished that I was a married woman with my own husband, my own children, and my own house." When asked about the prostitution, her answers were unsurprising: "I did not like it at all. After the first time, I came home and cried and tore my hair ó I hated myself and wished that I would die."

So while life in Pakistan is cheap, the lives of women are cheaper. Because of this attitude, educated and therefore wealthy Pakistani women put off marriage as long as possible. One woman from Punjab, Zanib, joined the Pakistani Air Force in order to delay marriage as long as possible. According to one of her friends, Afsheen, Zanib is ambitious ó a quality not necessarily welcomed in Pakistani women. In order to avoid the possibility of a husband cutting short her career by demanding a housewife, Zanib has resolved not to marry. In Pakistan, this also essentially means that she has embraced celibate chastity as well.

THE CULTURE of womenís servitude is reinforced in the NWFP, with its proximity to the more traditional Islamic culture of Afghanistan and the tribal areas where perhaps the most conservative Islamic fundamentalists live. The ethnic Pashtun who live in Pakistanís tribal areas identify more with Afghanistan than Pakistan. As far away as Peshawar, even wealthy, well-connected businessmen speak fondly of their homes in the villages. Zafar Yousaf, a fourth-generation Afghan and prominent banker in Peshawar, sums up his relation to Pakistan succinctly: "First we are Pashtun, then we are Afghans. Pakistani? Perhaps. Pakistan has only existed for the last 50 years." When he speaks of returning to his village, his face cracks into a broad grin ó the primitive conditions there speak to him in ways difficult for a Westerner to understand. And Yousaf lived in London as an investment banker for 10 years.

It was in the tribal areas that the madrassas educated the students who would later become the Taliban. In fact, with the recent lawlessness in Afghanistan since the fall of the fanatical Islamist regime, sympathy for the Taliban runs high. Initially encouraged by the Pakistani intelligence service, the Taliban soon became a force that Pakistan could not control, placing the tribal areas even further from the grasp of the Islamic republic and the secular reforms sought by Musharraf.

And Musharraf has tried to extend his authority. Several attempts by the paramilitary frontier police force to extend Pakistani federal control into the tribal areas over the last six months have met with disaster. Every house in the tribal areas is a fortress. Some even have heavy artillery, and most have field mortars. The people make their own weapons. The factories of the tribal village of Dara Adam Khel are famous for their gunsmiths.

So in the end, General Musharraf has a two-part challenge in his quest to bring democracy to Pakistan. First, he must bring the tribal areas into mainstream Pakistani society and under the rule of law. Once accomplished, no doubt it will be easier to crush the culture of bonded labor and slavery existing in the tribal areas. But this much is also clear: without a firm hand, the peculiar religiosity of the tribal peoples that spawned the Taliban will continue to spill into the rest of Pakistani society, cutting to the core of traditional democratic values and respect for human dignity. As Solon once said, "There can be no democracy where freedom is in peril."

Andrew Bushell reports from Central Asia for a number of publications, including the Economist. You can read his previous Phoenix story, on the danger of civil war breaking out in Afghanistan, online.

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Issue Date: February 14 - 21, 2002
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