Nameless, Genderless: The Meena Bazaar Women

What prevents politicians from discussing national security issues and violence against women in the same sentence? Why do politicians continue to treat gender as a stand-alone issue?
Vanessa Alexander
30 November 2009

'100 killed in Pakistan as Clinton arrives'- this is the title that caught my eye as I skimmed the news headlines.  I clicked the link and read that a bomb went off in a women's bazaar in Peshawar killing more than 100 people, mostly women and children, three hours drive from where Hillary Clinton was making a surprise visit to the capital. I click a few more links and then watch as Clinton somberly addresses the press about national security without a mention of the women who just lost their lives.

Usually I feel numb to the ever-persistent news of car bombs and suicide attacks in the media, yet this event struck a particularly painful chord in me. A deliberate attack on women and their children shopping for bangles and soap in a women's bazaar; why do this? More importantly why did Clinton not ask this question?

Entangled in the pretext and justifications for the 'war on terror' is the issue of women's rights.  It was previously used as justification at the onset of the war in Afghanistan, a war that has now spread like wildfire into the border regions of Pakistan, but is frequently forgotten as a key topic in recent times despite the continuing violence against women. In fact, when one takes a moment to sift through the news, it seems that women are the ones truly losing this ‘war’. On November 4th another girls’ school was blown up in the tribal area of Khyber along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, to add to the almost 200 others over the last two years. Two women teachers were shot dead in South Waziristan on the same day. I scroll through these articles on my laptop, and easily draw a list of dozens of recent events to do with security and women in the region. This is no longer a fringe issue.

November is a popular time to be married in Pakistan after the heat of summer subsides, and the Meena Market is affordable and known to be frequented by the less affluent of Peshawar's families. In the weeks leading up to the bombing members of the Shopkeepers Association at the Market report having been approached by Taliban demanding that they stop selling inappropriate clothing and jewelry to women and to ban women entirely from the market. Despite threats, business continued as usual and on October 28th hundreds of women were busily going from shop to shop with children in tow when the blast ripped through the little shanty bazaar. Left behind were the blood and broken bodies of what were once women - brides to be perhaps, examining jewelry and feeling fabric.  The scene leaves no question as to the motives of the perpetrators. This was an explicit plan carried out against the most vulnerable of Pakistan's society.

In addition to providing a warning to women that their lives are at stake, the bombing also serves to highlight the inability of Pakistan security forces to protect their own people - an embarrassing reality on the eve of a visit from the US Secretary of State.

The Taliban denied involvement, which is not surprising given that attacking the city's women with remote controlled explosions cannot be expected to bring support. And support is needed, for if the steady stream of young recruits dry up because the local population has lost respect for these freedom fighters, the war will be lost. As it stands, most of the locals questioned after the attack deny that the perpetrators were even from Pakistan, one shopkeeper was emphatic “I’m telling you categorically — the people behind this bomb are the Indians and Mossad”.

At the press conference Clinton condemned the bombing as “cowardly attacks on innocent people”, before proceeding with her well-rehearsed speech on sharing the burden of security with Pakistan. She failed to address the fact that women were deliberately targeted. She even failed to mention the bombing at all during a meeting with women entrepreneurs and professionals at the end of her stay, where one woman described Clinton's vague talk about "habits of the heart" as a "waste of her time".

So if not in a press conference, nor in a women's meeting, when is a good time to mention the women who are dying for being women? They certainly share this security burden. Even soldiers are ready to admit that “ it has probably become more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in armed conflict”  What prevents politicians from discussing national security issues and women in the same sentence?  Whatever the answer, I do know that by not making mention of these women who were violently murdered that day in the Meena Bazaar, Clinton, and the other politicians who did the same missed an opportunity and in doing so, condemned them to a nameless, genderless death.


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