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Pakistani Tribal Areas Lose A 'Voice For The Voiceless'

A likeness of Zarteef Khan Afridi, a schoolteacher and social and rights activist who was gunned down in his hometown of Jamrud on December 5.
A likeness of Zarteef Khan Afridi, a schoolteacher and social and rights activist who was gunned down in his hometown of Jamrud on December 5.
A close friend of Zarteef Khan Afridi, who was gunned down by masked men in his native Khyber tribal agency on December 5, says that "if you saw a man involved in chalking [messages on] walls, going from house to house, or speaking vehemently in a hujra [male guesthouse] of tribesmen advocating education for girls, human rights, political reforms, and peace instead of war, he would be Zarteef." noted:

Family sources said the deceased had been receiving threats because he was opposed to Taliban activities in tribal areas and supported women’s rights.

Fifty-two-year-old Zarteef Khan at times seemed like the sole voice of the tribesmen so aptly referred to as "the voiceless" for living under old tribal customs and traditions, on the one hand, and colonial-era Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), on the other.

Literacy -- particularly among women -- is the abysmally low in the tribal region that has been the focus of so much international attention since 9/11 and the subsequent overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

In such circumstances, Zarteef Khan Afridi was the torch bearer for education opportunities for male and female members of his community. He promoted the observance of human rights and tried to persuade people through chalk messages to the community, public meetings, and house-to-house campaigns to set aside seemingly arcane customs and traditions and learn how to go with the modern world.

A schoolteacher since 1983, Zarteef Khan was also a social activist and coordinator of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) for the tribal areas, which was about to issue an assessment of the risks facing rights advocates like Zarteef Khan, according to

[T]he Commission condoled with Afridi’s family and called him a ‘tireless human rights defender’.

The news of Afridi’s death came hours before the HRCP’s press conference in Lahore, to launch the 2011 ‘Observatory’ annual report on the protection of human rights defenders.

He also established the Democratic Commission for Human Development in the mid-1990s to organize evening meetings in hujras after finishing his daytime school duties.

In order to facilitate the enrollment of children -- and even adults -- at schools in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the untiring Zarteef Khan founded the FATA Education and Welfare Society in 1996. It was that platform that he used to launch a vigorous campaign in the Tirah, Jamrud, and Landikotal areas of the Khyber tribal agency, highlighting the importance of modern education over its madrasah-style equivalent. Those were the days when the Taliban was entering the corridors of power in Kabul, and Zarteef Khan was restless to inform his tribesmen of what he saw as a looming danger to the region.

Zarteef Khan was virtually the first among tribesmen to raise his voice for secularism. He opposed vulvar (bride money). In a blatant challenge to traditional local leaders and clergy, Zarteef Shah married his three daughters off without receiving any vulvar.

None of this was without its risks. Local leaders and clergy labeled him a kafir (infidel) for his liberal notions, preaching for modern education, and challenge to the local customs and traditions.

But even then, the schoolteacher stayed put. He continued to pursue his risky calling in an area where nearly half a dozen militant groups hold sway and many tribesmen believe they have little option but to remain silent about events around them.

Zarteef Shah's life was taken while he was on his way to school with plans to return and hold meeting with his tribesmen to discuss political reforms announced recently by the Pakistani government after decades of struggle by tribal people.

His friends, colleagues, and fellow tribesmen mourned his death by visiting his house and issuing statements in Pakistani newspapers. They call December 5, when this strong-willed and selfless man was finally silenced, a black day for the tribal areas. A militant group by the name of Abdullah Azzam Brigade claimed responsibility for his murder.

-- Daud Khattak