Breaking silence over punishment beatings by the Pakistani Taleban

Girls now go to school in this Pakistani mountain town and the military patrols keep security. But Saira Bibi's eyes still flash with pain and anger through the small gap in her veil as she recounts how the Taleban who once ruled here dragged her from home and flogged her in front of her neighbours.

• Speaking out: Saira Bibi was flogged by the Taleban

It didn't matter she always wore a body-covering burqa, nor that she rarely left her mud-brick home. It didn't matter her conservative in-laws scoffed at the accusation she was an adulterer. To the Islamist extremists who had taken over her tiny town above Pakistan's Swat Valley, a rumour was enough.

"They took me to the school, where 150 or 200 people had been gathered. They hit me 15 times," says Ms Bibi, 30, holding her one-year-old son.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Ms Bibi is one of the first women to openly speak about being publicly punished during the Pakistani Taleban's rule of the area. Her tale is a painful reminder of how Swat's conservative, ethnic Pashtun culture descended into harsh theocratic rule that banned girls from school, women from markets and executed anyone who resisted.

An iconic video of a flogging much like Ms Bibi describes helped galvanise Pakistani public support for last year's army offensive that finally drove the Taleban out of the Swat Valley, following several failed peace deals with the militants. The footage of the beating was shown on national television, stirring outrage.

More than a year since the offensive, life is starting to resemble normal in Swat. Schoolgirls again flock on the streets of the main city, Mingora.

Veiled women shop for food and clothes. Most of the two million who fled have returned.

"Our enrolment is increasing," says Anwar Sultan, principal of the state-run Saidu Sharif girls' high school in Mingora.

Soldiers now stand on street corners and at checkpoints. The jagged mountain trail leading to Ms Bibi's village of Ashar Band is strewn with rubble Some 300 schools the Taleban burned in the region have not been rebuilt.

The Taleban takeover of Swat, which was near-total by 2008, came as a shock to many Pakistanis accustomed to thinking of the militants as a mostly Afghan movement. No-one expected the homegrown version to start beheading only 175 miles away from Islamabad, the capital.

Many were initially supportive when Swat Taleban leader Mullah Fazlullah began preaching hard-line Islam. But over the months, armed men started roaming the area, punishing anyone who opposed them and driving out local authorities.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Ms Bibi was one of dozens of women who fell victim to the militants' zeal. She and her husband, Fazal-e-Azim, say a vindictive cousin spread the false rumour she was unfaithful while Azim was in another city.

Punishment was swift, even though her husband's family argued her innocence.

"I only wish the same punishment for the people who unjustly punished my wife," he says.