Fashionable dreams in turbulent Balochistan

with thanks : Dawn

QUETTA: Mehtab Kanwal embroiders a women’s tunic, dreaming of a prosperous future as a fashion designer with a boutique – albeit in one of the most turbulent and forgotten parts of Pakistan.

Kanwal’s dream just may come true thanks to a free design course at a new institute where officers gave journalists a guided tour to showcase development projects undertaken by a military with a chequered record in Balochistan.

“I belong to a lower middle-class family and want to be a help to my parents, who strongly support women’s empowerment,” said 16-year-old Kanwal.

“I’ll open my own boutique and a school to pass on the skill to other girls of my city and province,” she told AFP.

The army founded the Balochistan Institute of Technical Education (BITE) three years ago in Quetta as part of a pilot programme to turn raw youth into skilled labour in the resource-rich, but insurgency-torn southwestern province.

Although a drop in the ocean of massive challenges facing Baluchistan’s eight million people, the institute offers an opportunity for teenagers from low-income families to learn skills that can earn them a decent livelihood.

Balochistan has some of the most remote communities in Pakistan, miserable social indicators and a deeply traditional society where many women, particularly in the countryside, are rarely allowed to leave the home.

BITE opened its doors in 2007 and teaches more than 500 students, including 165 girls, subjects from beauty to sewing and knitting, mechanics and auto electronics.

Tuition is free and a monthly incentive of 2,000 rupees (24 dollars) encourages attendance among poorer students, says head Brigadier Jamil Sarwar.

“I feel lucky to have got permission from my parents to attend the course because we are still living in an environment where girls are not allowed to go out of their homes,” Kanwal said.

Balochistan, which borders Afghanistan and Iran, has suffered from a separatist insurgency for six years. Sectarian killings targeting non-Baloch and non-Sunni Muslims are on the rise in Quetta, the regional capital.

For decades, people have felt excluded or marginalised by the central government and the province has long been a fertile breeding ground for Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked militants, as well as separatist rebels.

When Baloch rebels rose up in 2004 demanding political autonomy and a greater share of profits from the region’s natural resources, the government responded by fanning out troops across the region’s main cities.

Baloch nationalists resisted. Hundreds of people have died in violence between Pakistani troops and insurgents and the military has been blamed for the disappearance of Baloch activists.

The government says it is working to implement sweeping reforms – criticised by Baluch nationalists as too little too late.

The government agreed to thin out the army’s presence, withdraw and halt construction of a new garrison in the gas-rich Sui district and replace the army with paramilitary patrols in troubled areas.

It has promised constitutional, administrative, political and economic reforms in a bid to grant the province more independence and wealth creation.

The government has also increased the development budget for Balochistan from 42 billion rupees (500 million dollars) to 50 billion rupees.

The army recently relaxed requirements on Baluch men signing up, but the numbers who have joined a training academy in Quetta are minimal.

Many Baloch see the army as the problem, not the solution, in a country that has been ruled by the military for more than half its 63-year existence.

“Baloch people don’t like the military’s presence and interference in civilian affairs. Such efforts will further hatred against the armed forces,”said Hakeem Baloch, a former chief secretary in Baluchistan and political analyst.

“The army is not allowing civilian administration to work independently in Baluchistan and this is where the problems begin to surface.”