A month after a Pashtun Sunni teen was lynched by a mob in Hazara Town, Shia Hazara women express their fears from outside the community and within.
On 29 May 2020, Bilal Noorzai, a Pashtun teenager, was brutally lynched by a Hazara mob in Quetta, Balochistan, Pakistan. Two of his friends and fellow Pashtuns were also beaten up and severely injured. The graphic images of Bilal’s mutilated body shook the community in Quetta and beyond.
The violent attack was followed by an unprecedented torrent of hate speech against Hazara Shias. Videos from Pashtun social media users openly urging for tribal and sectarian revenge went viral. These social media calls for revenge and violence were not limited to online threats only. In the days following the attack, Muhammad Hadi, a Hazara traffic police constable on duty, was allegedly beaten up by a Pashtun mob. In another incident, a Hazara teen, Syed Ismail, was shot dead by unknown assailants in an incident which police considers a case of tribal revenge.
Balochistan is no stranger to ethnic and sectarian violence. However, the Hazara Shia minority has rarely been the perpetrator but on the receiving side of violence. Indeed, they remain one of the most persecuted ethnic and religious minority communities in Pakistan. The question is then: what triggered this wave of violence?
Prior to the brutal killing of the teenager, Bilal filmed on his mobile phone random Hazara women walking on the streets of Hazara Town. Bilal’s casual filming of Hazara women on the street without their consent was seen by the Hazara men as harassment and a violation of the unofficial honour code in Quetta’s semi-tribal context. In response to this perceived harassment, Bilal paid with his life. For Pashtuns, the majority Sunni community, this violence against Bilal and others came as a shock, but the response was immediate. Under pressure from several political, religious and social quarters, the administration announced the formation of an investigative body (incorporating all concerned security agencies) to look into the wave of violence. Their report was due on June 12, but the investigation is still ongoing.
The spread of online hate speech was more challenging. For the provincial administration, exhausted in its fight against Covid-19 and related online misinformation, the increase of hate speech proved too difficult to monitor and address. In response, the authorities shut down mobile internet across Quetta city for two consecutive days. This has helped disrupt and slow down the flurry of hate messages.
The recent events have affected the situation of Hazara Shia women, even though they were not subjected to the violence nor took part in it. To explore the impact, we interviewed six Hazara Shia women.
Following the violence, one of the interviewed women, Aqila*, a recent university graduate, was so frightened of leaving her home that she decided not to accept a job offer. “Even some of my non-Hazara friends personally texted me to express their anguish. They also said that they would take revenge if the government failed to punish the Hazara men involved”, she told us.
Similarly, Dr Fatima*, a GP at a government hospital, expressed her fears of leaving her house: “During my daily commute, I was scared of experiencing unpleasant interactions or even violence.” She added, “In the wake of the pandemic, the medical fraternity have come under sporadic violent reactions from certain conspiracy-driven quarters. My identity as a Shia Hazara woman further adds to my vulnerability. And now, after this incident, I have decided to take a leave.”
Others, as for example, Seema Batool, president of the women’s wing of the Hazara Democratic Party (HDP), which represents the Hazara community in the provincial assembly, said that she could not sleep for many nights after the incident. She strongly condemned the violence and called for justice. “It was mostly women from both the Hazara and the Pashtun communities, and beyond, who spoke for justice. We also ran a campaign #PeaceForQuetta, a couple of days following the incident calling upon citizens of Quetta to support reconciliation and unite for justice and peace”, she said. She was extremely concerned how a single attack has negatively transformed the image of her community from one that is persecuted yet peaceful to one that is the persecutor and unworthy of sympathy.
“After this incident, other activists, especially male non-Hazara activists, put huge moral and political pressure on us, as if every single Hazara was accountable for Bilal’s murder. It seemed that our repeated messages of condemnation and condolence were not received well at their end.”
In addition to the external threat of harassment and violence, what further adds to the situation of Hazara women is the intensified moral policing and threats from Hazara men. In Balochistan’s patriarchal society, women represent the “honour” of the family and the community at large. Therefore, they need to be protected by men at all costs. In the aftermath of the attack and the subsequent reaction from other communities, some Hazara men expressed the need for restricting Hazara women to the confines of their homes. Many voiced their support for acid attacks as a preventive and punitive measure to keep Hazara women away from cross-ethnic interactions.
“It is men who create conflicts but we, the women, who face acid attacks”, said Shazia Batool, a renowned Hazara Shia female artist who also directs “Breaking Barriers”, a social initiative for artists with special needs. “Framing the conflict around women gives them immense power to act on behalf of the community or tribe. This has always proven costly for women. Even more so for women from the minority communities”, she emphasised.
“I was personally threatened”, says Surayya*, a female vlogger from Hazara Town. “I had nothing to do with this matter. I run a YouTube channel on lifestyle, but I have been dragged into this. Many Hazara men find my videos at fault for attracting viewers. Many are ‘reporting’ my channel and calling for violence against me”, added Surayya.
Despite Quetta’s diverse ethnic and religious communities, the city affords limited spaces for progressive conversations and collaborations across the community lines. Even the few informal multicultural platforms that exist have been affected. Shazia Khan, an artist-activist, says she has been hesitant to crack unfiltered jokes out of fear that such jokes could be used to spark further violence. “The atmosphere has changed lately, and I have never self-censored as much as I do now. I think it will take some time before Quetta can laugh again”, said Shazia.
While the violence stopped thanks to Bilal’s father, Sharafuddin, who urged fellow Pashtuns to “let the court decide”, the situation is far from being resolved. The recent events show the fragility of Quetta’s religious and ethnic relationships. The government cannot continue to ignore it and needs to provide a comprehensive response that will accommodate dialogue between the communities and secure their future. This means also securing a future for the Hazara women who pay the price for the lynching that they did not do.
Raheela Habib is the Co-founder of Women Initiators (WI), a community organization for women’s empowerment in Hazara Town. She is a researcher at the National Center for Bioinformatics, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. She tweets @RahilaHabib
Sajjad Hussain Changezi is a Rotary Peace Fellow and a graduate of Global Studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His research and activism revolves around human rights in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region. He tweets @Changovski
Sadiqa Sultan is a Research and Development Consultant with a focus on peacebuilding. She is a graduate of Peace and Conflict Studies from University of Otago, New Zealand. Through her work, Sadiqa envisions a world with more love, hope, peace and justice. She tweets @SadiqaSultan