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Pakistani Girl’s Death Sparked Late-’80s Ethnic War

Sunday, July 19, 2015

When Bushra Zaidi was killed by a bus on her way to college, the city of Karachi erupted, says Rafia Zakaria in this excerpt from “The Upstairs Wife.” Justice for her death didn’t come until two years later, in 1988, during the national elections.


Credit: Zahid Hussein, Courtesy of DAWN archive.

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(WOMENSENEWS)–It started with a young girl who wanted a college education. Bushra Zaidi and three of her young friends set out for college one sweltering April morning like they did any other day. The black numbers on the Casio watches so many of the college girls wore indicated it was 10:30 a.m., when the midmorning classes at Sir Syed Girls College in North Nazimabad were about to begin.

The sun was already high in the sky and the city streets choked with traffic. Like all girls colleges in Karachi, Sir Syed Girls College was a fortress of high walls and gates designed to enclose girls yearning to learn and to keep out the men yearning for them. Men lounged and loitered around the gates of the college, hawkers selling coal-hot corn or ice-cold drinks, men loafing, men waiting, men pretending they were waiting for sisters to collect and transport at the end of the day. Men were not allowed inside, but getting them away from the premises was an impossible task.

So crowded was the area around the college gate that the bus dropped the girls off across the street. It was a bare 500 yards of heated asphalt and flying dust between the bus stop and the open gate to the college. That morning the four girls clasped their hands and began to walk across the road, as they always did, their leather satchels bouncing against their sides as they made their way across. They inched forward, expertly and slowly, through a pause in the traffic, a small stop in the hum of speeding cars and rickshaws and buses. Before long, they were halfway, then two-thirds of the way, almost there.

They probably did not see the bus coming from the other side. Yellow and fast and festooned with gilt decorations that flashed in the sunlight, it was bound directly for them. The driver would later say he did not see the girls at all. In an instant, they were crumpled and flattened, their warm blood pooling in cracks and crevices of the road. One was dead and three were dying.

The name of the girl who died was Bushra Zaidi. Her family had also come to Karachi after Partition, and she was one student in a college of hundreds like her who had wrested from reluctant fathers’ and brothers’ permission for an education. Her family was of modest means, and while they had done better than those who still slogged away in the city’s slums, theirs was a frugal existence, shadowed by the knowledge that there was barely enough to go around.

The man who had killed her was a Pashtun, a member of the ethnic tribes that straddled the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. They had arrived in Karachi in droves, fleeing the war that seeped into their villages. In the city they found jobs as bus drivers, and then called their brothers and sons and cousins to join the same trade.

Not Quickly Forgotten

This was Karachi, and there was too little of everything. One or two people died in the path of the buses every day, their deaths either forgotten or forgiven or both. Zaidi’s case should have not been any different. She had no important relatives who could cash in favors and urge arrests. Her humble family neither entertained military generals nor had accrued patronage from feudal lords; they could not even boast of a savior cousin or two in some middling government post who would speak up for the female victim. And the bus that crushed her was owned by a man whose uncle was a police officer, a fact that shifted the entire equation in favor of silence, anonymity and no markings of bereavement at all, not even the scant minutes of mourning generally apportioned to traffic fatalities. Bystanders tried to flag a rickshaw to take the bleeding girls to a hospital, and passing strangers stopped their cars and heaved the girls’ torn bodies into the backseats of passing cars. All indications were that this event would be quickly forgotten.

At least an hour after the accident the incident was revealed to be different. A new generation of girls had been brought up behind the walls of that educational facility, unprivileged girls raised just like Zaidi inside the tight limits of airless rooms and insecure respectability, Karachi girls who had believed in college and education, and stared down and dodged the very buses that had killed their classmate. When these girls heard that no police report had been filed and no charges lodged against the driver for killing Zaidi, they grew agitated. Wet with tears and reddened with anger, they congregated in clusters around the cheap, painted desks, holding textbooks of anatomy and geography and Urdu literature, sweating and crying under the slow-moving fans. Their anguish and frustration swelled when their teachers tried to force them to sit down and fix their gaze once again at the blackboards covered with equations. They refused. When they were pushed out of the classrooms, they collected in the corridors; when they were pushed out of the corridors, they came outside.

Girls Come Into the Streets

Hours after Zaidi died on the street outside Sir Syed Girls College, the girls came out into the heat, into the hordes of men that still waited at the gates, into the blood puddles that marked the spot where their friends were hit. The police who had surrounded the college after the incident, the police who were refusing to register a report against the driver, now panicked. They had never before seen girls emerge into a street, young girls, college girls shouting slogans. The crowd of girls grew as more and more emerged from the buildings. A few hours after Zaidi’s death, in the scorching late afternoon heat of a Karachi April, the street was full of angry, young girls. Slowly, the demonstration inched toward a police van parked outside the gate, their every step forward marked with their collective chant for justice for the dead Zaidi.

The policemen in the van were outnumbered. Rather than standing by, allowing the wispy, unarmed girls their protest, they charged at them with the police van. It was mayhem. One girl at the front of the line folded to the ground in the first frontal assault of the van. Then the policemen in their black and khaki uniforms stormed the crowd of chanting girls and began to beat them with batons. These were untouched girls who never spoke to strange men, girls who were permitted to leave their homes only to get an education, girls who asked shopkeepers to place objects on counters to avoid even the barest brush of a male hand, girls who had never protested.

The policemen didn’t care. They grabbed and groped the girls, their breasts, faces and hair, intent on teaching them a lesson. They were being taught not to leave the boundaries of their campus, not to ask for something the men did not want to give them; they were being taught the consequences for speaking up. Other police vans arrived, with more men and more batons and more guns and more anger. Crumpled by their numbers and their guns, the weeping, beaten girls retreated inside the college walls and the terrified college administration shut the gates to hold back the swarm of armed police. But the military assault on the girls continued. Shells were lobbed over the college walls, streaming tear gas through the open windows of the buildings and leaving hundreds of girls crouched on the ground, coughing, sputtering and crying.

Karachi Erupts

After the killing of Zaidi, Karachi erupted. The story of the dead girl and the man who murdered her were whittled down to their ethnicities. She was Muhajir and he was Pashtun; she was dead and he was free. It was as if every festering suspicion, every slight between every Muhajir and every Pashtun had to be avenged. Angry Muhajir mobs set fire to Pashtun buses, their burned-out carcasses left charred and sulking at every intersection. Orangi Town, the slum that housed the children and grandchildren of the refugees, became the center of conflict, with Muhajirs fighting Pashtuns and gangs of Pashtuns striking back.

It was the beginning of an ethnic war that would outlive them all. In the days that followed, hundreds died, and from their blood a fifth ethnicity emerged in Pakistan. There were no longer Sindhis, Punjabis, Balochis and Pashtuns, each neatly attached to a province in a country that then had four of them. This new ethnicity was called “Muhajir,” or “refugee,” an umbrella name for all those whose families migrated to Pakistan post-1947, all those who now lived in a Karachi straining at its seams.

Justice for Zaidi’s death did not come until almost two years later, and it was a justice erected on the shoulders of ethnicity, of who belonged where. On Nov. 16, 1988, national elections were held all over Pakistan. It was the first time Pakistanis had voted since 1971 and they were electing a prime minister after more than a decade of military rule.

On the eve of the election Karachi vacillated between two powerful women. On one end, at her tree-lined mansion by the sea, was the newlywed Benazir Bhutto, whose party won a national majority of seats. As the sun set that day, she knew her party was the only one with a majority and that for the first time in history a woman would serve as prime minister of a Muslim country. But on the inner edges of the city, in the slums of Orangi, in the squat houses of Nazimabad, in the teeming flats of Gulshan-e-Iqbal and Gulistan-e-Jauhar, another celebration reigned. Benazir had won the country, but she had lost Karachi. The city and nearly every electoral seat in it had been swept by the Muhajir Qaumi Movement (a political movement to obtain equal rights for Muhajirs, migrants from India). Their victory was a victory for another woman, the dead but not forgotten Zaidi.

Excerpted from “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan” by Rafia Zakaria (Beacon Press, 2015). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

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