MIRANSHAH, NORTH WAZIRISTAN // Major General Hassan Azhar Hayat makes an unlikely trailblazer for women’s liberation.
A battled-hardened commander in the Pakistani army, he has spent the last eight years in the rugged tribal zone of North Waziristan, a notorious stronghold of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
From his base in the main town of Miranshah, he speaks about how more than 800 of his men have died in the two-year operation to bring peace to the region.
But as he hops into his car for a guided tour around town, his war-weary tone lightens up as he talks about his new counter-insurgency tactic. It doesn’t involve guns or tanks, but needles, thread and mixing bowls. And the opening salvo will take place at a newly-built school, which will soon be running embroidery and cooking classes.
“We’re hoping to get women to enrol so that they can go on to set up their own boutiques and maybe even cafes,” beams Gen Hassan. “Women didn’t used to run businesses in this part of the world – we’re trying to change that.”
Whether any local menfolk will try to enrol in the classes remains to be seen. Gun-loving and religiously conservative, North Waziristan’s tribesmen are not known for their interest in sewing, much less for sharing classrooms with women.
All that, though, may now be about to change.
For by introducing these remote corners of Pakistan to the values of the 21st century, the army hopes to challenge the very culture that gave the militants a foothold in the first place.
North Waziristan, a region of jagged, lunar mountains on the Afghan border, is a case in point. It lies in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas – or Fata, the government’s acronym for the vast chunk of north-west Pakistan that has never submitted to their rule, or anyone else’s.
The origins of the Fata stretch back to the 19th century, when even the British Empire found the local Pashtun tribes too fierce to control. Ever since, they have been largely self-governing, with tribal jirgas, or courts, replacing the law of the land.
But when Taliban and Al Qaeda militants flooded over the Afghan border after the US-led invasion in 2001, that hands-off approach helped North Waziristan become a terrorist safe haven. Not only did locals respect the militants’ piety and fighting prowess, their ancient tribal hospitality code forbade them to hand them over to anyone else.
So it was that Miranshah, just ten miles over the border from Afghanistan, became a “Terrorist Pentagon”, as Gen Hassan puts it.
Untroubled by prying eyes, the militants hatched several major bomb plots against the West here, including the so-called “liquid bomb” plot to blow up transatlantic airliners.
The town’s high-walled compounds served as jails for kidnapped westerners, and for many years, it was one of the CIA’s best guesses as to where Osama bin Laden was hiding.
Adding to Washington’s frustration was the suspicion that Islamabad itself was turning a blind eye, seeing the extremists as a useful loose cannon against India.
But all that changed in 2014, when growing levels of home-grown terrorism – including the Pakistani Taliban’s massacre of 132 children at a military-run school in Peshawar – saw the army declare all-out war on militants.
Gen Hassan now claims to have driven the militants almost completely from North Waziristan, uncovering a huge bomb factory in Miranshah in the process. But with much of the town destroyed during the fighting, he is using the opportunity to rebuild life here from scratch.
As well as new schools, hospitals and clinics, there is a brand-new cricket and football stadium, while in place of dirt tracks are concrete roads, cutting journey times from days to hours. A technical college is also being built, giving people a chance to earn a living legitimately.
“In the old days, this town was 50 per cent dependent on smuggling and 20 per cent dependent on terror,” says Gen Hassan. “People would rent their houses to the jihadists, who’d pay well in dollars from their foreign backers. We want to get people back to humanity again, by making them useful members of society.”
Thousands of families suspected of harbouring extremists are also being put through deradicalisation programmes, where religious scholars teach “the true meaning of Islam”.
But “deradicalisation” is also about challenging other attitudes too.
The new schools, for example, will include several set aside for girls, who often go uneducated here.
Gen Hassan also wants to get television cables into Miranshah, after hearing from one tribesman that he was reluctant to let his wife watch television.
“We want to connect people to the outside world,” he says. “Some of their culture will stay, but there are aspects of modern life that they will find attractive.”
Another measure is to curb the age-old tribal gun-culture, by limiting each household to just one Kalashnikov where they used to have a dozen or more.
Residents are also being issued biometric identity cards, without which they cannot access the services the government is now providing.
How successful it will be remains to be seen. For some tribal elders, even the sight of young men playing football in shorts at the new stadium has raised eyebrows. The restrictions on gun ownership, meanwhile, have led to different families settling their disputes by hurling rocks at each other instead.
But Gen Hassan’s efforts are merely the precursor to much wider reforms passed earlier this month by the Pakistani parliament, which will effectively scrap the Fata altogether. The old British-era Frontier Crimes Regulations – which sanctions the age-old authority of the tribal courts – will be replaced by new measures giving residents normal rights under law.
Some local elders are anxious about the loss of tribal authority, warning that another power vacuum right now is the last thing the Fata need.
Gen Hassan, though, argues that the elders lost control to the militants anyway, and that it is the only way to stop them from returning.
“The leaders may feel their authority is waning but there are benefits to modern culture,” he says. “Besides, you can’t really have a country where there is one rule for one group and other for the rest.”