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Women find new roles in village

By Suzanna Koster
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GUNSHATTERBALA, Pakistani-controlled Kashmir (CNN) -- Iron sheeted shelters and tents are the new face of Gunshatterbala, a remote village with some 800 citizens near Muzaffarabad, the hard-hit capital of Pakistan-held Kashmir.

Dangerous muddy grounds cover what oncer were roads. Only a naked slope was left after trees, homes and livelihoods were washed away within a minute during the October 8, 2005, earthquake.

Mohammad Munir wants to undo the devastation from last year's earthquake in Gunshatterbala. One-hundred-sixteen people in the village were killed; only three houses remained standing and the villagers also lost many cattle.

But it is a new role discovered by many of Gunshatterbala's women that also troubles Munir.

"It is not good at all that women go to the city and market," he said. "According to our religion women should not be seen by other people."

Tradition in rural Pakistan-controlled Kashmir holds that women should take care of the household, duties that include tending to home, animals and land. But the earthquake triggered a new wave of activism among the women of Gunshatterbala. Facing strong opposition from men, more women have joined local committees that have been formed to help rebuild the village.

"The engagement of women is a big change. They were hardly engaged in society," said Kaneez Fatima, committee manager since 1999, carrying a small boy on her arms.

Opposition from men

Women in Gunshatterbala are working to secure resources from the government, as well as aid and development organizations, said Sekina Rafiq, a young committee member.

"We lost everything, our animals, properties, (and) financial resources, some of us lost (our) land. We have to start a new life," she said.

Nasreen Bibi, who started a committee with 50 women, believes a new world opened after she lost her livelihood. "Before the earthquake I was busy with housework, animals and kitchen. I wasn't much aware and I didn't know about the social sector," she said.

Bibi said that she was bound to her house before the earthquake. Her husband did not allow her to go to the city or meet other men. Now she and other women regularly go to the city to speak to officials about the needs of the village.

Opposition from some men is harsh, however. Some chastise the women's new assertive role as going against Islam.

"They say we don't behave according to Islam and our traditions. It hurts me," Bibi said.

Adds Fatima: "No man objects us going into the forest, but if we go to the city, all men object."

But Munir, who heads a religious school in the hamlet, says there are practical concerns about women leaving the household.

"If women don't look after the houses and tents, (then) people will steal things," he said, adding that his wife is educated yet a committed housewife. "She can't go to the city," he said.

Tension on the rise

Not all men in Gunshatterbala object to the relief work being performed by women. Bibi's husband Mohammad Muskin is an avid supporter of his wife.

"I think women's work is not bad. It is necessary," he said, as he sat on a rock while leaning with his hands on a wooden walking stick.

The lives of the villagers in Gunshatterbala today remain much harder than before last year's earthquake. "Before the earthquake the village was good," Rafiq said. "We had our own resources. But now we all feel bad."

Though the hamlet has become a center of activist aid work, tension is on the rise.

" We cannot return to the deep and dark tunnel. We are going to the bright and light future." - Nasreen Bibi

"There is a lot more strain on the women," said health worker Zaneet Sadiq. Women lost most of their household and cooking utensils and they have to walk for more than an hour to fetch water, as many water pipelines are not restored yet, Sadiq said. Additionally, landslides and flooding this past summer damaged the pipelines further after the earthquake.

"Some men do nothing but fight with their wives. But all the fighting is because of the poverty level," Rafiq suggests.

Munir believes that the women will return to their homebound lives as soon as their livelihoods are back on track again. "There is no role for women in the after-the-reconstruction phase," he said.

But Bibi said she had no intention to return to her homebound life. "We cannot return to the deep and dark tunnel. We are going to the bright and light future," she said.

Adds Kaneez: "We are all equal now, not rich, not poor, not men, not women."


A woman in the village of Gunshatterbala cleans cooking utensils. Much of the village was leveled last year.


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