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April 27, 2007

Pakistan: Only Women Can Rescue Women

In many Islamic countries, religious leaders believe that women cannot be touched by men outside their family. So when catastrophe strikes as it did in last year's Pakistan earthquake; it's up to the women to save themselves.

women in pakistan praying

Photo Credit: Evelyn Hockstein/Polaris

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Classes had already begun when the fire broke out at Intermediate School No. 31, an all-girls middle school in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Islam's holiest city. As the flames and smoke spread, panicked students fled for the exits. Outside, firemen assembled quickly, preparing to pull the girls to safety. But they never did: Saudi Arabia's religious police stepped between the students and their rescuers, beating the girls — who were not wearing their head scarves or abayas — back into the inferno. On that day in March 2002, 15 schoolgirls were trampled or suffocated to death in what is perhaps the most dramatic recent example of the clash between religion and humanitarian aid. In many Islamic countries, custom dictates that a woman or girl cannot be viewed or touched by a man outside the immediate family, even it that man is a doctor — or a rescue worker trying to save her life. So in times of crisis, when a woman is alone and in need of serious help, there's only one place to turn. Another woman.

The Rescue Squad
Zeb Alam crouches on a tiny ledge several hundred feet above the ground. As she bandages the head of a wounded civilian on a basket stretcher, her bright orange pants and top flash brilliantly against the pewter-gray granite of the mountain face. On the far side of the steep gorge, her colleague Nasreen Fatima carefully checks that her climbing harness is securely fastened. Four months pregnant with her first child, Fatima's body is still reed-slim. Confident she is properly secured to the zip line she and her teammates have just rigged, Fatima steps out into the air and pulls herself over to Alam and the stretcher. Far below, boulders the size of cars litter the temporarily dried-up riverbed, a testament to the destructive flash floods that periodically sweep through the region.

After connecting the stretcher to the safety line, Fatima, 5'1", works her way back across the gorge. Meanwhile Alam, now on climbing ropes, begins rappelling down the rock face, carrying a child strapped to her back for safety. With her body perpendicular to the mountain, Alam appears to delicately walk down the sheer face. "If I move too fast when I'm rescuing someone this way," she explains, "I could start a rock fall, and that could kill both of us."

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