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The Cost Of Women's Rights In Northwest Pakistan

Earlier this month, 25-year-old Farida Afridi, who ran an organization that provides information for women about their rights, was gunned down in the street, near the city of Peshawar in northwest Pakistan. No one has been arrested for this killing. In all likelihood no one will be.

On July 4, Afridi was leaving her home to go to her office in Peshawar. What happened next shocked the local community, says Zar Ali Khan, who heads a consortium of activist groups in Peshawar.

"When she was coming from her home early in the morning at 6 a.m., she was intercepted by two motorcyclists," Ali Khan says.

The men on the motorcycles pulled out guns. This was something that Afridi had been warned about, many times, he says.

No human rights is here, no constitutional rights is here, no democratic rights is here.

Three years ago, Afridi created SAWERA, or the Society for Appraisal and Woman Empowerment in Rural Areas. She gave lectures and provided information on women's rights. But in the process, she caught the attention of some in northwest Pakistan who didn't like her message.

"They had warned her not to go and work for the empowerment of women, for the rights of women," Ali Khan says.

There were at least a dozen warnings. Then came the attack.

'Enemies Are Around Us'

The men on the motorcycles opened fire. Afridi was hit five times in the head and chest areas. The motorcyclists sped off.

So far no one has claimed responsibility for the killing. But when Ali Khan sat in mourning with Afridi's father, he said he asked him who he thought had carried out the killing.

"I put the question, 'Who killed her?' And he said, 'You know and I know well. Our enemies are around us,' " Ali Khan says.

Members of Afridi's family and their larger tribe believe militants with links to both al-Qaida and the Pakistani Taliban were responsible.

This area of northwest Pakistan does not come under the jurisdiction of the federal government or its constitution. What that means is that there are no Pakistani police. It's what Ali Khan calls a human-rights-free and democracy-free zone.

"No human rights is here, no constitutional rights is here, no democratic rights is here," Ali Khan says.

Afridi's group worked for the empowerment of women in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan.

Sometimes this kind of a grief and ... loss makes you [an] even ... stronger person.

"Essentially, we are asking about the women having fundamental access to resource," says Dr. Farzana Bari, a professor of gender studies at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. "That means education, good health, ability to work, economically independent, and make choices for themselves, you know, for their own lives."

An Ongoing Mission

Afridi's killing certainly isn't the first of its kind in northwest Pakistan. Other women have been killed in recent years for pursuing the same kind of activities. Last year, a man who worked for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan was also killed in the same town where Afridi lived.

Still, despite the dangers, this work continues in northwest Pakistan, Bari says.

"Sometimes this kind of a grief and ... loss makes you [an] even ... stronger person," Bari says.

Afridi and her younger sister Noorzia worked together at the organization. Noorzia, too, has been warned. The threats come in text messages on her cellphone.

In a small and heavily accented voice speaking by telephone from Peshawar, Noorzia says others in the community want her to quit. They urge her to sit at home and stop these kinds of activities.

"They said [to] me don't go anywhere. ... Sit at home and don't do these activities or this job," Noorzia says. "I will never leave this job because it's the mission of my sister and [God willing] I will complete it."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mike Shuster is an award-winning diplomatic correspondent and roving foreign correspondent for NPR News. He is based at NPR West, in Culver City, CA. When not traveling outside the U.S., Shuster covers issues of nuclear non-proliferation and weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and the Pacific Rim.