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April 27, 2007

Pakistan: Only Women Can Rescue Women

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two female rescue workers

Photo Credit: Evelyn Hockstein/Polaris

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That Pakistan has female search-and-rescue workers is in itself remarkable. This is a country, after all, in which arranged marriages, jail sentences for rape victims, honor killings, and dowry burnings (when a bride is burned to death by her husband if her dowry is not large enough) are common. In Baluchistan, one of the country's four provinces, many residents abide by the maxim that a woman should leave her home only three times in her life: when she is born, when she marries, and when she dies. In the fabled North-West Frontier Province, Taliban-style repression spilling over from neighboring Afghanistan is fast taking hold. Female shoppers at the local market are completely swathed in black, faces and hands covered despite the sweltering heat — a marked change from a few years ago, when women regularly wore tunics and loose pants in public.

So perhaps it isn't surprising that although female search-and-rescuers are equipped with orange jumpsuits like their make colleagues, many are reluctant to wear them, finding them too formfitting for religious reasons. They prefer instead traditional salwar kameezes with long dupatta shawls covering their heads and upper torsos. They compromise: After Fatima pulls the climbing harness over her jumpsuit (instantly outlining her hips, groin, and butt), she whips her dupatta off her head, tucks her hair into her mountaineering helmet, and ties the shawl around her lower body, this preserving Pakistani-style modesty.

Yet the female search-and-rescuers are no wilting flowers. In the mammoth earthquake last October, which killed an estimated 87,000 people — completely pancaking two cities and leaving some 3 million homeless — Alam and Fatima were among the first to be helicoptered in to help. Of course, they needed their husbands' formal permission to go. Even one night spent away from home by a woman was previously unheard of in these parts, where adult females are expected to travel with a male family member at all times.

Alam wondered how her husband would respond to her request to join the search-and-rescue program. Like many girls, Alam was removed from school and educated by a private tutor once she hit 15. At 19, her family gave her away in an arranged marriage, and her husband's family did not permit her to attend college. "Our culture would prefer we stay at home, but Mir was very supportive when I asked him about joining the search-and-rescue team," she says. "He knew I'd have wanted to be a social worker, if I'd been able to go to college. He's a policeman, so he also knows how important this work is in our mountains. But some of my friends tried to discourage me, saying I wasn't 'normal.'"

"People have criticized us. They say this is not women's work, that it isn't suitable for us," adds Fatima. "But I tell them we are serving humanity. I ask, 'If your relatives were injured, wouldn't you be glad that I do this?' Yes, I know that we will not change society so quickly."


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