Women Suicide Bombers and the Changing Trajectories of Pakistan’s Baloch Insurgency

The death of a popular activist in 2020 served as a turning point for gender roles in the regional independence movement

Women Suicide Bombers and the Changing Trajectories of Pakistan’s Baloch Insurgency
Sumaiya Qalandrani Baloch, who targeted a convoy of the Pakistani military in Balochistan’s Turbat district, poses with the Balochistan Liberation Army’s flag. (Abdul Basit)

In April 2022, when Shari Baloch, a 30-year-old mother of two, targeted Karachi University’s Confucius Centre in a suicide bombing, killing four people, including three Chinese instructors, it sent shockwaves across Pakistan and prompted the surviving Chinese staff to leave the country. The attack marked an apparent shift in Baloch insurgents’ recruitment patterns and violent tactics. In the two decades of the current separatist struggle for Balochistan’s independence, never before had a woman undertaken such an attack. Moreover, when it came to be known that she belonged to an educated middle-class family, held a master’s degree in education and taught at a public school in Balochistan, it surprised people further.

A year later, in June 2023, a second attack took place. Sumaiya Qalandrani Baloch, another woman suicide bomber, targeted a convoy of the Pakistani military in Balochistan’s Turbat district. The Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), one of the main groups of the Baloch insurgency, declared that the “era of women’s active participation in the armed struggle has begun.” Prior to the attack, Sumaiya, 25, was working for Hakkal, the BLA’s media wing, while pursuing a bachelor’s degree in computer science.

These attacks prompted seasoned observers of the Baloch conflict to look more deeply into women’s evolving participation in the insurgency, and compelled the Pakistani state to come to grips with Balochistan’s changing reality. While the attacks generated simultaneous shock and curiosity among the public, they also allowed the Baloch insurgents to draw attention to their demands and their goal of a separate Baloch homeland.

Balochistan, Pakistan’s southwestern province, has been in the throes of this insurgency for the last two decades, but its genesis lies in the Baloch community’s long-standing political disenfranchisement and socioeconomic grievances revolving around ownership of its rich resources, including coal, chromite, sulfur, limestone and iron ore, as well as gold, copper and titanium. Since 1947, Pakistan has benefited from Balochistan’s rich resources but has left the province at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, leaving many in the Baloch community feeling alienated from the state.

Despite being strategically located at the confluence of South and Central Asia, Balochistan is Pakistan’s most impoverished province. The majority of the country’s poorest and least developed districts are in this province and, according to research by the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics in May 2020, nearly 41% of households in Balochistan live below the poverty line. In recent years, the beginning of work on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has added to locals’ fears that they will be further deprived of their resources and will continue to lag behind.

Hence several insurgent groups, such as the BLA, the Balochistan Liberation Front, the Baloch Republican Army and the Baloch Republican Guard, among others, have been waging a campaign which has evolved from a low-intensity conflict to a sophisticated insurgency. Apart from hitting government infrastructure like power pylons, gas pipelines and railway tracks, and tougher targets like security installations and well-guarded CPEC projects, they have also expanded the scope of attacks from Balochistan to Karachi, the capital of neighboring Sindh province and the financial and cultural hub of the country.

The current, 21st-century wave of Baloch insurgency is said to be the fifth, and is considered to be larger and more lethal than the previous four, which took place from 1948 up to the 1970s. Unlike the earlier waves, which revolved around demands for political autonomy, equitable resource-sharing and proportional representation for the Baloch in Pakistan’s mainstream politics, the current wave espouses separatism and does not believe in a negotiated resolution to the conflict.

Known for its leftist and secular leanings, the Baloch insurgency had not been associated with extreme violence like suicide bombings until 2018. That was when the BLA established the Majeed Brigade, its suicide squad, and started hitting high-profile targets like the Chinese Consulate in Karachi, the Pearl Continental Hotel in Gwadar, the Pakistan Stock Exchange and the headquarters of Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force, in Balochistan’s Nushki district. In fact, Sumaiya’s fiance, Rehan Baloch, the son of Aslam Baloch, who founded the brigade, became the movement’s first male suicide bomber when he targeted a bus of Chinese engineers working on the CPEC in Dalbadin district in 2018.

Since then, Baloch separatists have perpetrated around 10 suicide attacks, including so-called fedayeen (“self-sacrificers”) operations, in which militants participate with the intention of not coming out alive. The brigade also follows an open recruitment policy under which insurgents from any group can volunteer for self-sacrificing missions, whether they are looking for revenge or recognition, or want to provoke a reaction from the counterinsurgent forces.

Although only two cases have been reported, the BLA has claimed that a sizable number of women have volunteered for self-sacrificing operations. While this could be an exaggeration, their participation signifies that the Baloch insurgency has moved on from being a tribal movement and become a struggle of the educated and the middle class, open to women’s participation in combat roles. It also shows that women are not only limited to secondary roles as informants, recruiters, propagandists, matchmakers, caretakers and nurturers, but are ready to be on the front lines, capable of hitting both hard and soft targets.

Until the two suicide bombings took place, Baloch women’s participation in the insurgency had been largely peaceful, and they lent their support mostly in their capacity as mothers, sisters and wives who had lost their loved ones due to enforced disappearances or extrajudicial killings. Around 5,000 people have been declared missing in Balochistan, according to Voice for Baloch Missing Persons, which includes dissidents and those branded as supporters and sympathizers of insurgents. In the majority of cases, families do not know their whereabouts or the charges against them. Since most of them are men and the sole earners in their families, women end up facing the brunt of the repercussions.

Recently, many women activists have also become officeholders in activist organizations, working to highlight grievances of the Baloch and the issues of enforced disappearances, extrajudicial arrests and killings of dissidents. One of the most popular among them was Karima Mehrab Baloch, an exiled Baloch activist who was mysteriously found dead in Canada in 2020. She had become the first female chairperson of Baloch Students Organization Azad (BSOA) after Zahid Baloch, its previous head, disappeared in 2014, but had to take asylum in Canada a year later after facing threats. In 2016, she was named one of the BBC’s 100 inspirational and influential women.

While some believe she died of natural causes, Baloch separatists blamed the Pakistani deep state. It sent shockwaves around the world and Pakistan and prompted widespread protests in the cities and towns of Balochistan and Karachi. During her burial, her hometown of Tump was placed under the control of paramilitary forces, a curfew was imposed and mobile services were suspended to prevent thousands from attending her funeral.

But her death served as a turning point in pushing Baloch women to join the insurgency. Furthermore, Baloch leaders built a narrative around it to encourage more women to volunteer as suicide bombers, saying that if the women did not push back forcefully against the state’s highhandedness, their fate would be no different from Karima’s. It strongly resonated with many and observers said that the level of anger seen among Baloch women after Karima’s death was unprecedented.

Leaders like Aslam Baloch’s wife Yasmeen also encouraged women to join the movement. In a 2019 interview, Yasmeen said that the social barriers that existed in a patriarchal society like Balochistan, where women have struggled to play an active role in the movement, were shifting and that there was now a realization that separatism could not be attained without women’s participation.

Shari was greatly upset after Karima’s death. The Guardian reported that Shari told her husband, Dr. Haibatan Baloch, a dentist by profession, that, “The enemy cannot even accept peaceful methods of politics,” and that, “Innocent Baloch are killed and abducted and these brutalities will reach our families if we do nothing.” In her last statement, released posthumously by Hakkal, she also wrote, “The time for conversation, dialogue and speeches is over. It is time for action to hit the enemy where it hurts the most.”

One common factor in Shari’s and Sumaiya’s decisions to enlist for suicide bombing, visible in their writings and statements, was also the humiliation felt by the Baloch at the hands of Pakistani security institutions. “Every day our people are disrespected. Our mothers, sisters and innocent children are on the roads protesting and crying for their loved ones,” wrote Shari in her statement. She was an active member of the BSOA and regularly participated in its rallies, long marches and protest camps.

The need for revenge also resonated strongly with the two. Sumaiya had lost three of her relatives and family members in counterinsurgency operations. While Shari had not lost a family member, the deaths of fellow Baloch had had a deep impact on her. She had chosen “Bramsh” to be her alias, which is the name of a 4-year-old whose mother was killed by a private militia in 2020. It is believed that the death of Hayat Baloch, a University of Karachi student killed in Turbat by a Frontier Corps soldier, had also troubled her.

Sumaiya and Shari also wanted to become icons and symbols of resistance for other Baloch women. In her last statement, Sumaiya said that her act was “only the beginning of such sacrifices,” and she was sure that others would join the struggle. Shari said that she wanted “to be the pioneer of a pathway that others will pursue. … I can only create awareness and hope for others to follow.”

Their deaths have not only lowered the entry barriers for women combatants, they have also compelled men to join the movement and play a more proactive role. The impact could be felt earlier this year, in August, when two male suicide bombers mentioned Shari and Sumaiya as their main inspiration in video testimonies after bombing a convoy of Chinese engineers in Gwadar (who escaped unhurt), and urged others, including women, to join the insurgency. The narrative of women joining as combatants has the potential to shame men into doing so in larger numbers.

While Baloch separatist groups can gain strategic and tactical advantages from women’s participation, since they are less likely to be suspected as suicide bombers, particularly in traditional religious societies like Pakistan, this could add to the challenges of women political workers and human rights activists in Balochistan. While security agencies have mainly arrested men, a dynamic that could be altered after the two women’s suicide bombings, Baloch women activists fear that they could also be picked up extrajudicially on the pretext of security concerns. After Shari’s attack in 2022, the security forces picked up a 40-year-old woman named Noor Jehan from Balochistan’s Kech district for allegedly planning a suicide attack. The Counter Terrorism Department alleged that she belonged to the BLA’s Majeed Brigade and was planning to target a Chinese convoy working on CPEC in Balochistan. Her arrest triggered large protests, mostly from women, in different parts of the province.

Amid worsening conflict in Balochistan, the participation of women suicide bombers points to a potential new and more violent phase of the insurgency. Irrespective of whether more women join the movement or not in the future, their evolving roles in the face of the state’s apathy and the shrinking space for peaceful activism will help insurgent groups make deeper inroads into Baloch society and gain wider acceptance and legitimacy.

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