Zarteef Khan Afridi did not look like a target for an assassin’s bullet. Slightly built, with a gentle demeanor, he resembled what he was: a government school headmaster in an obscure town in Khyber Agency, bordering Pakistan’s northwest border with Afghanistan.
But the gunmen who shot Afridi dead December 8th knew he was not a simple schoolmaster puttering on his motorcycle to the school where he’d worked for more than 20 years. Whether it was offering a human rights lawyer an armed guard or declining a bride price for his daughter, Afridi fought for democracy and challenged the oppression of women still common in rural Pakistan. That made him enemies. It also made him a reminder that many Pakistanis want change in its social polity for reasons that have nothing to do with U.S. pressure or aid.
Warriors for human rights
In 1995 Asma Jahangir, a human rights lawyer, was defending Salamat Masih, a poor Christian boy sentenced to death for ‘blasphemy.’ After she was threatened by Pakistani extremists, Afridi wrote her a letter offering to bring armed tribal militia to Lahore to defend her.
Afridi was already involved in the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan(HRCP), co-founded by Jahangir in 1986. He would eventually become the group’s coordinator in Khyber Agency, in addition to his job heading the school. His resolve to help women and fight for human rights and democracy for people in the tribal areas meant he received many threats over the years from local militants.
He annoyed extremists when he arranged a jirga (tribal council) to oppose extremism and terrorism, recalls Husain Naqi, a former newspaper editor who runs the newsletter for HRCP. Afridi also persuaded a tribal industrialist to contribute funds for a children’s school for Pakistani refugees.
Afridi was proud of the small library he had built under the banner of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) Education and Welfare Society. It was the first of what became seven adult literacy centers in villages around his hometown of Jamrud.
But even his own family members were pushing back against his actions. He once told me that “I want my daughters to marry of their own choice and not wear burqa (veil), but my wife gets angry. She says she will leave me if I encourage such ‘dishonorable’ behavior.” Nonetheless, he managed to ensure that no one in his family received a vulvar, or bride price when marrying off their daughters. He himself took no vulvar, unlike many Pakistani activists, who say one thing and then do another when it comes to their own daughters.
He was up against much bigger forces than his wife when he publicly advocated against the bride price, for girls’ education and secular education, for women’s right to vote, and for Pakistani laws to be extended to the tribal areas. But he did have some success in all these areas.
Leaving a legacy
“Zarteef was the one who campaigned for women’s right to vote at elections and he took his family females to vote,” says newspaper editor Naqi.
Increasing numbers of women and girls are attending school. Women voters are now visible on polling day in Jamrud. In August this year, the president extended Pakistan’s Political Parties Act to the tribal areas, allowing political parties to operate there as they do elsewhere in the country. All this is anathema to the extremist forces aligned with the Taliban.
THE Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has called for the government to apprehend his killers. His murder, it said, “underscores the escalating threats” faced by those working for human rights face in Pakistan. Afridi is the third of its coordinators to be murdered during 2011.
Zarteef Khan Afridi is survived by a wife who can vote, daughters who are educated and a community of activists determined to carry forward his mission.