How Pakistan's Floods Have Made Women Too Visible

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Adrees Latif / Reuters

A woman watches floodwaters rise from the outside wall of her compound in Pakistan's Muzaffargarh district in Punjab province

Nagina drew her modest light green cotton dupatta — the scarf that Pakistani women drape over their arms, head and chest — up over her face as she cautiously peered out from a muddy white tent to watch her youngest child, a barefoot, trouserless 4-year-old boy in a navy blue shirt streaked with soil. The timid Pathan woman has four other children — three older girls and a boy — but her daughters are not with her in this overcrowded cluster of tents known as the Khandar relief camp in Nowshera, a flood-devastated northwestern district some 90 miles west of Islamabad, the capital, in the insurgency-plagued, religiously conservative Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly North-West Frontier) province. "We are trying to keep the girls away," Nagina says, "because parda is impossible now."

Parda, which is also spelled purdah and means curtain in Urdu, is the practice of shielding women from men they are not directly related to, both through physical segregation and through the custom of modesty, that is, with shape-concealing clothing. It is observed by many women in rural areas of Pakistan, including the majority-Pathan northern belt bordering Afghanistan. In these parts, a family's honor is often tied to the chastity and obedience of its women — and protecting and defending the honor of women from verbal and physical harm is part of an ancient code of honor and revenge. But the code is all too often taken to extremes. Barely a week goes by without a story appearing in the Pakistani media about an enraged male — from across Pakistan's multiethnic spectrum — who has killed a female relative or relatives for some perceived infringement of "honor." For women adhering to parda, it's usually easier and safer for them to simply remain secluded in their homes.

The floods have made that option unavailable in many places. Desperation has driven women to vigorously jostle with men for limited relief goods at distribution points. Overcrowding and densely pitched tents have forced them into close quarters with men they don't know, the flimsy canvas coverings providing little privacy from prying eyes. In the camp at Nowshera, Adiba nods in gloomy agreement as her sister-in-law Nagina discusses the limits of parda amid the calamity. Her tribal tattoos — a green dot on her forehead and another on her chin — mark her as a member of a conservative tribe from the Taliban-infested town of Bajaur. Both women say their husbands are understanding of the conditions but that they fear their men's patience will run out. "My husband is very upset," says Adiba, a mother of six. "This is why we're just sitting in our tents during the day and the night, like in a cage."

Pakistan's northwest, the first region to be hit by the floods and the most devastated, "is an extremely conservative society," says Imtiaz Gul, author of The Most Dangerous Place, a book about Pakistan's northwestern tribal belt bordering Afghanistan. "You hardly see women outside, and they hardly have any role — except for cooking and cleaning the house, and that's about it."

Nagina, like many of the women in Nowshera's camps and other places where the Pathan have sought refuge from the waters, has sent her unmarried daughters away to live with relatives whose homes were not washed away by the deluge. She hasn't seen them in a month. "We have no choice," she says sullenly. "This situation is forced on us."

Gul says the longer it takes to get people back to their homes, the greater the possibility of social unrest amoing men from different conservative towns who have been thrown together. The situation "is pregnant with the possibility of social friction," he says. "Frustrations will start boiling over. People are saying the worst is over, but I would say that the worst has just started."

Akbar Ali, a 27-year-old driver who has been in the Khandar camp for 18 days with his wife and 2-year-old daughter, is simmering. He is desperately trying to rent a house at any price to get his family indoors, he says, but there's little left on the market. He has been offered work but turned it down because he did not want to leave his wife, who used to be in parda, alone in the camp. "We are all Pathan, but we are still very different from each other. The men move around the camp. I'm just afraid that one day, if they say something to my wife, it will cause a problem, a fight, because I will have to respond. It's my duty."

As relative newcomers to the camp, Ali and his small family had missed out on securing a tent on the grounds of the Government College of Technology or a space inside the school's two-story brick structure. The classrooms were already brimming with evacuees, packed four or five families to a room, by the time he arrived. And so he has had to make do with a slab of concrete outside the college cafeteria, open to the elements. "We have become like dogs," he says bitterly from behind dark sunglasses. "Wherever we hear that relief supplies have arrived, we just run after them."

To avoid violence, he and the several other men whose families are also squatting along the cafeteria wall have banded together to prevent strangers from approaching them. "Some people have tried to come around here, but they only try once," Ali says. "They know not to come around again."