Why Baloch Women in Pakistan Led an Unprecedented March

They were protesting against enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in a remote province that has faced an insurgency for two decades

Why Baloch Women in Pakistan Led an Unprecedented March
A protest camp was set up outside Islamabad’s National Press Club to highlight enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in Balochistan. (Somaiyah Hafeez)

On a cold December night, loud cries and screams could be heard from the women’s police station in Islamabad after more than 50 Baloch women and children were detained without charge. (This writer, who was reporting on the ground, was also detained and released soon after.) The women had been on a “long march” from Turbat near the Iranian border in Balochistan to the Pakistani capital — covering over 900 miles, crossing villages, towns and cities across the country — to stage a protest against enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in the province.

During the course of the march, the authorities had used all their resources and energies to contain it and prevent the protesters from reaching Islamabad, from registering fake cases to blocking roads and picking up organizers.

But when footage of police officers pushing and dragging women into buses to take them back to Balochistan circulated on social media, it outraged people all over the country and focused national attention on the issue of human rights violations in the province, a rare occurrence in a country where protests are often dismissed as “anti-state” when they are noticed. (Because the provinces of Punjab and Sindh are the political centers of the country, they are considered the Pakistani mainstream and dominate the news cycles. Coverage of issues in other provinces is usually relegated to the sidelines.)

Earlier protests in Balochistan were led by men, with women as followers, and they were much smaller. Most protests were also limited to Balochistan, and gained little national attention.

Yet the recent long march was not only predominantly led by Baloch women, but the scale and participation had increased, with a significant number of women from poor and lower-middle-class families participating in the protests for the first time. Baloch women who had been leading protests in the province for over a decade finally found a place in the mainstream. The march was thus unprecedented in several ways.

Balochistan has been embroiled since the early 2000s in an insurgency that started because of the Baloch community’s long-standing political disenfranchisement and socioeconomic grievances with the Pakistani government. But due to continued inaction by the government, rising human rights violations and the killings of prominent Baloch leaders, it turned into a secessionist movement. Currently there are two prominent insurgent groups — the Balochistan Liberation Army and the Balochistan Liberation Front — embroiled in the armed conflict with Pakistan’s security establishment.

Baloch separatists accuse the Pakistani government of exploiting the region for its rich reserves of minerals while neglecting its people. Many of the country’s poorest and least-developed districts are in the province.

With the armed conflict as the backdrop, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings have also risen in the past two decades as, activists and journalists say, people were detained because of “suspicion” or “false information.” Voice for Baloch Missing Persons, a nonprofit organization representing family members of those who have disappeared, estimates that 7,000 cases have been registered with it in the past two decades.

However, the government-run Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances (COIOED) has downplayed those numbers and said that there were only 300 active cases as of December 2023. Three months earlier, Pakistan’s interim prime minister, Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar, also underplayed the extent of disappearances and told the BBC that there were only about 50 people missing in Balochistan.

Previously, bodies of missing people would be found on the roadside, said families, but in recent years abductions and disappearances have often been followed by reports of missing people getting killed in supposed shootouts with security forces, who accuse them of being terrorists. Families claim their innocence and allege the killings to be extrajudicial, then find it difficult to get due process. The police hesitate to register cases against security agencies, and COIOED is slow in resolving cases. The agency also discards some by using legal loopholes.

Despite the national media not covering the movement, under pressure from the government, the recent protest not only found the limelight through social media but also garnered international attention. U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor expressed concern regarding the police harassment faced by protesters and spoke to Mahrang Baloch, 30, and Sammi Deen Baloch, 25, two women who emerged as leading figures of the movement.

While usually no more than a couple of dozen families would attend the sit-ins and protests, during this recent movement about 100 families camped outside the National Press Club in Islamabad for over a month. Many prominent civil rights activists, feminist groups, journalists and lawyers in Pakistan also extended solidarity by visiting the camp.

One such notable visit was by popular journalist Imran Riaz, who went “missing” for five months in 2023 after he criticized the military establishment following former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s ouster. He sought forgiveness from families of the victims and extended his solidarity. Previously, Riaz was known to be a staunch supporter of the military and had labeled Baloch missing persons as “traitors” attacking the country’s institutions.

The political events of the past year in Pakistan have also added to this awakening. Khan’s ugly fallout with the military led to a crackdown on members of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. Authorities used tactics similar to those reported in Balochistan. Khan’s allies were reportedly tortured, abducted and pressured into leaving the party.

This recent long march was prompted by the killing of a student from Turbat, a city in Balochistan. Balaach Mola Bakhsh, his family claimed, was picked up by the Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) in a midnight raid on their house in October and killed a day before his bail plea in November. The CTD claimed that he was arrested in November and was one of four terrorists from a proscribed group killed in a shootout. Thousands had turned up for his burial, and it marked the first time that a funeral of this scale was held for a young man from a working-class background, demonstrating the extent of anger in the community.

Because of government antipathy and inaction over the issue of enforced disappearances, most people in Balochistan have lost trust in Pakistani institutions, including Parliament, the judiciary and the media, and resentment has grown. Many have turned to protest on the roads. Every time there has been an abduction or a killing, families and supporters have come out in protests and sit-ins outside government buildings in Balochistan or blocked the main highways in cities like Turbat and Quetta. They have also annually congregated in major cities like Karachi and Quetta on Eid and participate in long marches.

Initially, men led these protests. Political activism in Balochistan, plagued by patriarchy and tribalism, has been a male-dominated space with only a few female politicians in the arena until the 2010s. But the “political vacuum” created by the deaths and disappearances of male activists has been filled by women, prompting them to take to the front lines, Mahrang told New Lines.

Even though women had taken center stage in Balochistan, they had remained on the periphery of the Pakistani mainstream, as national media would not cover their protest rallies and sit-ins and their stories were discredited as “baseless” and “anti-state.”

Family members of the Baloch missing people at the sit-in camp in Islamabad. (Somaiyah Hafeez)

During the recent long march, many feminist leaders in Pakistan started drawing parallels with the earlier feminist and women’s protest movements in Pakistan. However, Baloch women said theirs was a political movement, centering on Baloch grievances, while feminist protests focused on breaking away from the culture of “chadar aur char dewari,” which dictates that the proper place for a woman is to be veiled and within the four walls of her home.

Moreover, their role as leaders is not a recent phenomenon.

Karima Baloch emerged as a community leader when she became the first woman chair of Baloch Students Organization-Azad (BSOA), a prominent political organization in the region, in 2015. She took on the leadership role after its general secretary, Raza Jehangir, was killed in 2013 and the incumbent chair, Zahid Baloch, went missing in 2014.

Political observers say that much of the credit for what has recently transpired should go to her.

“Her leadership qualities, charisma and coming to the forefront in the BSOA as a dedicated worker and leader broke ground for others to participate,” said Mir Muhammad Ali Talpur, an activist and writer associated with the Baloch movement.

“The parents and families who hesitated in allowing their daughters to participate in politics changed their minds.”

Even though the organization was banned soon after she took charge, Karima continued to organize to shed light on the rising human rights abuses and the political and economic marginalization in Balochistan. She led rallies, protests and hunger strikes, and worked toward including more women in the Baloch political arena.

Soon women had a system in place to stage protests whenever cases of enforced disappearance or killing came to light, both on the ground and on social media. And this continued despite Karima’s exile to Canada in 2016.

However, her death under mysterious circumstances in 2020 while in exile led to unprecedented anger in Balochistan and mobilized women further.

The vacuum after her death has now been filled by Mahrang and Sammi, who have become household names in Pakistan. Both of them have been protesting since the 2010s after they lost their fathers as children. Mahrang’s father, Abdul Ghaffar Langove, was a leading political activist in the region who was abducted by the security agencies three times. His body was found in 2011 on the roadside in the Lasbela district of Balochistan.

Sammi’s father, Deen Muhammad Baloch, was picked up by security personnel in 2009; his whereabouts are still unknown.

“It is my responsibility to fight for my mother, who doesn’t know if she is a widow or married, for my grandmother and all the tears she shed,” she told New Lines. “The state didn’t just take our father but took away our childhood and our right to live a normal life.”

Mahrang Baloch (in white) consoles an elderly woman. (Somaiyah Hafeez)

Both leaders address protest rallies throughout Balochistan and in major cities across Pakistan. They have been writing for national and international news outlets about their activism and the broader movement for Baloch rights.

In the past decade, Sammi, who is general secretary for Voice of Baloch Missing Persons, has met several politicians, including Khan when he was prime minister as well as then-Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari, to lobby for demands of Baloch protesters. Because of her efforts, the government formed committees to look into the matter, and several times authorities have released a few people. But the official response has been limited, and disappearances have continued to rise in the province.

Still, they win praise for their efforts.

As to Mahrang, “There has been no other Baloch leader, let alone woman, who has led such a huge protest in Islamabad for so long and so consistently,” Baloch journalist Malik Siraj Akbar, who has been covering the conflict for more than two decades, told New Lines.

“Mahrang has to be given credit for what no other Baloch politicians have been able to do in terms of bringing large crowds in Islamabad as well as Quetta but also bringing people out in other parts of Balochistan parallel to the long march,” he said. “The movement is unprecedented, but it is to be seen if it can sustain itself.”

“It is a very transformative time for Balochistan’s politics and it is clear that all these fronts would be significantly led by women, from civil rights to armed resistance,” he said.

In February, when Baloch protesters returned to Quetta after the Islamabad sit-in, they received a hero’s welcome in a public gathering attended by tens of thousands. They gathered despite a curfew imposed by the state to prevent the assembly. Even during the recent Eid holiday, protests and rallies all over Balochistan and in major cities like Karachi and Islamabad saw increased participation, with many first-time protesters.

At the Karachi protest, Sammi said that the fear inculcated by the security establishment in Balochistan — “that if you protest, we will kill your loved one” — is no more. “Now, if a case of enforced disappearances emerges, the women in cities as well as remote areas of Balochistan block roads in protest on their own,” she said.

Earlier, many families would hesitate to protest lest they or their family members would be targeted by the authorities. But now Baloch women are able to organize on their own without relying on activist groups.

However, analysts expect the issue of enforced disappearances to continue, as they say it benefits both the military establishment and Baloch insurgents.

“The former abduct people to spread fear among the public in order to contain the insurgency, and for insurgents it [the issue] helps them recruit more Baloch youth,” a Baloch analyst told New Lines on the condition of anonymity. The issue is also used for political traction by some political parties, the analyst added.

Meanwhile, the military and insurgents continue to battle, with the latter carrying out major attacks in the past few months. But Baloch women continue to lead peaceful protests to raise the issue of human rights violations in the province.

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