Thursday, July 19, 2007

Meet the Kalasha, one of Pakistan's only remaining indigenous non-Muslim communities - a remarkable living throwback to a pre-Islamic era.
According to the Kalasha themselves, their unique way of life is under attack like never before. Thanks to rising extremism among a small minority of Pakistanis and the growing appeal of populist orthodox mullahs who espouse sharia law and Taliban-like austerity, the Kalasha are increasingly in the firing line.
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Unveiled: The Pakistani tribe that dares to defy the fundamentalists
In the North West Frontier Province, the mullahs' word is law and the veil is worn. But one ancient tribe refuses to cover up.
Jerome Taylor reports from the Rumbur Valley
Published: 18 July 2007

In Pakistan's deeply conservative North West Frontier Province, the veil is simply a way of life. Whether in the bazaars of the capital Peshawar or high up in the myriad of Himalayan villages bordering Afghanistan, women wishing to leave their houses do so under the cover of a niqab or a billowing burqa. So important is the Islamic concept of purdah that the fort-like houses in the tribal areas usually contain separate living quarters for women and men.
Give or take the occasional advertising hoarding or glitzy film from Lahore, most men are unlikely to see an adult female face outside of their immediate family until they marry.
But in the remote Chitral region nestled high in the Hindu Kush mountain range are the last remnants of a tribe where the women walk unveiled in bright red and black dresses. Lavishly decorated with orange bead necklaces and colourful hats made from cowrie shells, they dance in public and are often free to marry and take lovers. They are the Kalasha, one of Pakistan's only remaining indigenous non-Muslim communities and a remarkable living throwback to a pre-Islamic era.
Yet according to the Kalasha themselves, their unique way of life is under attack like never before. Thanks to rising extremism among a small minority of Pakistanis and the growing appeal of populist orthodox mullahs who espouse sharia law and Taliban-like austerity, the Kalasha are increasingly in the firing line.
"We've always been called kafirs (infidels) but most people simply left us alone," says Azam Kalash, one of the few members of his 3,500-strong community who managed to go to university and now campaigns for his tribe's welfare. "Now we are deemed enemy number one. Particularly after September 11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the missionaries and mullahs are determined to see us wiped out."
Isolated from the outside world by the remoteness of their valleys and the heavy Himalayan snows that block the mountain passes in winter, the Kalash somehow managed to survive successive waves of Muslim invaders and missionaries that pushed back the pre-Islamic Hindu, Buddhist and pagan tribes who once filled the fertile plains of the Indus valley.

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