Women take the lead in civil resistance in Baloch — Global Issues


Mahrang Baloch during a public appearance. The 30-year-old has become a prominent figure in the Baloch movement. Credit: Mehrab Khalid/IPS
  • by Karlos Zurutuza (Rome)
  • Inter Press Service

It took place on January 24 in Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan, 900 kilometers southwest of Islamabad. The large, mainly male crowd that gathered to welcome a group of women was unexpected by many. The reasons behind it, however, were compelling.

They were welcomed back home after leading a multi-month women’s march to Islamabad, demanding justice and reparations for the missing Baloch people. Speaking to IPS by phone from Quetta, Mahrang Baloch provides the context behind what became known as the ‘march against the Baloch genocide’.

“For two decades, Pakistani security forces have been waging a brutal military operation against political activists, dissidents, journalists, writers and even artists to suppress the uprising for an independent Balochistan, resulting in thousands of disappearances.”

The Baloch people live spread across the borders of Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan and number between 15 and 20 million people. They have their own language and culture.

After Britain withdrew from India, they declared their own state in 1947, before Pakistan did. However, seven months later, the territory was annexed by Islamabad. Today, they live in the largest and least populated province of the country, also the richest in resources, but plagued by poverty and violence.

Mahrang Baloch, a surgeon by profession, remembers being 15 years old when her father, a government official known for his political activism, was arrested in 2009. Two years later, his body was found in a ditch, gruesomely mutilated.

“There is not a single Baloch family that has not lost one of their relatives in this conflict,” the prominent activist said. But silence does not seem to be an option for them.

“We of the Baloch Unity Committee (BYC) will fight against the Baloch genocide and defend the national rights of the Baloch people with public power in the political arena. However, we will continue our struggle outside the so-called parliament of Pakistan, which has no real mandate from the people and is facilitating the Baloch genocide,” the mass leader explained.


International organizations such asAmnesty International orHuman Rights Watch consistently accuse Pakistani security forces of committing serious human rights violations, including arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial killings.

Pakistani authorities declined to respond to emailed questions from IPS. Meanwhile, Voice for Missing Baloch People (VBMP), a local platform, has cited more than 8,000 cases of enforced disappearances in the past two decades.

The secretary general of that organization is Sammi Deen Baloch, a 25-year-old Baloch woman who led the march to Islamabad last winter, along with Mahrang Baloch. Baloch is a common surname in the region. The two women are not related.

Sammi Deen also participated in previous marches in 2010, 2011 and 2013. Her father disappeared in 2009 and she has not heard from him since. “Fifteen years later, I still don’t know if I’m an orphan and my mother doesn’t know if she’s a widow,” says the young activist.

Last May, Sammi Deen traveled to Dublin, Ireland to Asia Pacific Human Rights Award, which is awarded annually to outstanding human rights defenders.

But putting Balochistan in the international spotlight comes at a price.

“They are resorting to all kinds of strategies to silence us, from smear campaigns to threats against our families as well. They are even constantly filing false police reports against us,” Sammi Deen Baloch told IPS over the phone from Quetta.

Mahrang Baloch visited Norway last June after receiving an invitation from the PEN Club International, a global association of writers with consultative status to the UN. Even in the Scandinavian country, she was harassed during her stay, forcing the Norwegian police to intervene on several occasions.

Despite the pressure these women face, Sammi Deen points to “significant progress” in the attitude of her people after the latest march.

“Until recently, most of the thousands of affected families remained silent for fear of reprisals, but people joined the latest protest en masse. Today, more and more people are raising their voices to condemn what is happening,” the activist claims.

Thirst for leadership

Baloch society has historically been organised along tribal lines. Some of its most charismatic leaders, such as Khair Bux Marri, Attaullah Mengal or Akbar Khan Bugti, ultimately paid with imprisonment, exile and even death for their resistance to what they saw as a state of occupation by Pakistan.

Muhammad Amir Rana is a security and political economy analyst and the president of the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies. Speaking to IPS by phone from Islamabad, Rana points to a certain “need for leadership” as one of the keys to the massive support for Baloch activists.

“The problem is that all those historical leaders are already dead, and those who remain in Balochistan are seen by a large section of Baloch society as people close to the establishment. They no longer represent their people,” the analyst explains.

He also highlights the presence of an ’emerging’ Baloch civil society structured around the Baloch Unity Committee (BYC), the Baloch Students Organisation (BSO) Azad ) or the VBMP.

“Mahrang Baloch is a young woman with an academic background who has managed to bring the issue of the missing Baloch people to the fore, but also to marshal the sentiments of her people and seems able to channel that into a political movement,” the expert said.

It is a view shared by many, including Mir Mohamad Ali Talpur, a well-known Baloch journalist and intellectual.

“The mainstream parties often try to replace civil society, but they are too shallow with their limited goals to take up the mantle. As for the tribal leaders who are left, they are the government’s henchmen and their power comes from the support of the government and the tribes,” Talpur tells IPS over the phone from Hyderabad, 1,300 kilometres southwest of Islamabad.

He also highlights the changes brought about by the last women-led march.

“Since the last march, all the kidnappings have led to protests, including road blockades and other such actions. Mahrang and Sammi have a charismatic aura and emulating them is considered honorable in both urban and tribal sections of society,” Talpur explains. He also emphasizes that both women “give continuity to Karima Baloch’s legacy.”

He refers to that Baloch student leader who was forced into exile in Canada, where she died in 2020 under circumstances that have not yet been clarified. The BBC, the British public broadcaster, even included her in its list of “the 100 most inspiring and influential women of 2016.”

As for the most pressing issue, Talpur is direct about the social impact of the women-led march:

“The most important change is that people realize that if they remain silent about the injustice done to them, the situation will only get worse.”

© Inter Press Service (2024) — All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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