By Beena Sarwar
The folk tale
about the camel that stuck a foot in its master's
tent ostensibly to shelter from the cold but eventually
pushed its master out reminds one of the vigilantes
trying to thrust their views into our personal lives.
In recent months, the mullahs have pushed their
way to a victory on the issue of the religious column
in the new machine-readable Pakistani passport.
The government meekly acquiesced over what it apparently
thought was a non-issue, hoping perhaps that by
doing so religious extremism would be denied a battering
ram. But symbols are important. The inclusion of
the religion column in the new passport only emboldened
the mullahs further, rather than pulling the rug
out from under their feet. Puffed up with self-righteousness,
they chalked up one victory for themselves and looked
around for another battering ram.
They found it shortly after their 'successful' strike
call against the price hike and other issues (are
there ever any unsuccessful strikes in a country
where everyone knows only too well the consequences
of keeping businesses open during a strike?). Following
the outstanding success of the Lahore marathon earlier
organized by the Chief Minister's Task Force, the
Sports Board Punjab was organizing marathons to
prepare athletes for the next Lahore Marathon of
January 2006. According to a news report of March
11, in the first phase, mini marathons including
3 km and 10 km runs were planned in eight districts
of the province including Lahore, Gujranwala, Faisalabad,
Sargodha, DG Khan, Multan, Bahawalpur and Rawalpindi.
The top ten athletes of these races were to be called
in for a national level race. According to a report,
"People from all walks of life will be allowed
to participate in the marathons." Last I checked,
'women' came under the category of 'people', but
obviously the MMA has different ideas.
And so we had the spectacle of hundreds of armed
vigilantes, hurling petrol bombs, destroying public
property and physically attacking the participants
of the Gujranwala marathon.
It is commendable that the Punjab Assembly the next
day debated the issue for two hours, and unanimously
adopted a declaration denouncing the 'violent disruption'
of the Gujranwala run as an act of terrorism and
"a violation of women's basic and constitutional
The resolution, moved by law minister Basharat Raja,
commended the government's step "to give 33
per cent representation to women in elected institutions
and encourage them to participate in country's development
is commendable. It declared "that disruption
of women's healthy, positive, social and political
activities is an act of terrorism and extremism".
The House demanded "that the government should
declare the act of violence against women by the
people involved and organizations as terrorism and
take measures to curb such incidents in future."
Instead of taking the legislators' advice and coming
down on the miscreants with the full force of law,
the government meekly released all those who had
been arrested for the attack on in Gujranwala. This
pathetic move only further emboldened the mullahs,
coming as it did on the heels of the Punjab government's
backtracking on the issue and the announcement that
there would be no more mixed marathons.
A large number of girls braved the threats to participate
in the Sargodha marathon on April 9, but were forced
to run inside the stadium of a girls' college --
defeating the very notion of a marathon as a long
distance run. Armed vigilantes were allowed to hang
about outside in 'ambush positions' as one news
report put it, threatening to teach any woman runner
a lesson who dared to run outside the stadium.
Given the administration's easygoing attitude towards
the mullahs, no wonder that vigilantes in Khairpur
had the gall to threaten, verbally abuse and attempt
to intimidate the district Nazim, Nafisa Shah, against
whom they've held three demonstrations over the
past week. Her crime: she directed the District
Police Officer to allow a local commercial group
to hold a women's festival that the local religious
vigilante group (in this case the Ahle Hadith, an
off-shoot of the banned Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan)
was opposed to. One of their objections was the
very name of the organization holding the mela,
the Ayesha Welfare Trust. Vowing that they would
not allow 'obscenity' to take place under the banner
of this sacred name, they prevented the mela from
starting by taking over the venue for some nine
hours as the police stood by and watched. It was
finally on Nafisa Shah's intervention that the event
took place at all.
Those in the know suggest that the police's reluctance
to grant permission to the organization for the
women's mela had more to do with the organizers'
refusal to cough up the hefty bhatta that is usual
in such situations -- which is generally shared
with the local disrupters. Eventually, it is believed
that such a transaction did take place. Even so,
the mela was forced to close down on April 19, a
day earlier than scheduled.
Nafisa Shah believes that she was targeted because
she opted for an 'upfront confrontation' with the
religious organization instead of stepping back
as most politicians tend to do. For this she was
made the target of the mullahs' wrath. It is worth
nothing that the mullahs who are so quick to see
obscenity everywhere see nothing wrong with using
foul and abusive language against a woman.
As the extreme right, cajoled, placated and implicitly
supported by a government that allows them to make
a nuisance of themselves, pushes its advantage and
tries to take over the whole tent, it is once again
the women of Pakistan who are standing up to them.
A forceful statement was made in Karachi on Wednesday
as hundreds of demonstrators, men and women, gathered
before the Press Club under the banner of the Joint
Action Committee to unequivocally denounce the growing
attacks on women, specifically, the Gujranwala marathon
and the Khairpur women's mela and Nazim. They included
the 'usual' women's rights activists as well as
representatives and members of political parties,
and they demanded enforcement of the rule of law,
'not the writ of a minority' as one placard put
Ghinwa Bhutto of the PPP (SB) echoed the sentiments
of all those gathered there when she asserted that
Allah does not belong to the MMA or to men alone
and that religion is not anyone's property to be
used at will. Enough is enough. As one group of
"Aik pakora tel ke andar
Jaali mullah jail ke andar!"