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It's All About Public Space, Stupid

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By Beena Sarwar

What happened on the streets of in Cairo on May 25 resonated around the world, particularly with those of us in Pakistan, who saw a sort of milder preview of the Cairo action eleven days earlier on the streets of Lahore. Then, plainclothes policemen and policewomen had attacked peaceful, unarmed demonstrators and targeted the women for sexual abuse and humiliation by tearing their clothes. In Egypt, they went a step further and besides beating them, stripped some women naked, sexually abused and groped them.

What's going on here? At the risk of sounding facetious, it's all about public space, stupid.

In our societies, despite all the progressiveness and apparent liberalism that is emerging in the cities at least - and perhaps partly as a reaction to it -- public space is shrinking for women. At any rate, it is under attack. We'll come to that in a minute.

Let's first consider a fundamental (no pun intended) similarity between Egypt and Pakistan: each is struggling to modernise in the midst of unjust political economic and social systems, while battling internal demons of traditionalists and orthodoxies that incorrectly use the crutch of religion to justify all kinds of injustices. The religion, of course, is Islam, to which everyone pays much lip service. They'll talk
about the great respect they have for women, and how heaven lies beneath a mother's feet, and how, on the Day of Judgement, you shall be identified not by your father's but by your mother's name… But when it comes to ground realities, it is a different matter.

The ground realities are that any woman who defies the limits or parameters set out for her by tradition - not religion, mind you, but
tradition - is fair game. But it's not even as simple as that. Women in our societies have already transgressed a fair number of barriers.
Increasing numbers are in previously male-only or male-dominated professions and spheres of society - airline pilots (and now even air force, in Pakistan at least), engineers, doctors, lawyers, scientists, dentists, politicians (even a prime minister in Pakistan).

But it is when they engage in any public activity that has connotations for the power brokers, that the might of the state is unleashed upon them. Policemen and women, who are representatives of the state, are now encouraged and empowered to resort to violence that can take on sexual connotations, including sexually harassing, abusing, and tearing off the demonstrators' clothes in order to humiliate them in public.

We've been seeing this phenomenon since the days of Gen Ziaul Haq, starting with the horrific incident of 1984 when three females were stripped naked and marched through the streets of Nawabpur, near Multan, for a transgression supposedly committed by their brother-in-law. The man himself died later, having been beaten beyond recognition. Perhaps such incidents took place before but were simply not reported.
But at least the state wasn't involved in this public humilation, although political prisoners, including women, have long been subjected to such abuse in the 'Land of the Pure'.

As the Egyptian activists said in a press release of June 1, "It is the same old unethical weapon used by tyrants all over history; if you want to humiliate a nation, target the dignity of its women. If you want to oppress men, molest their women. If you want to damage a village, rape its women. If you want a prisoner to confess, threaten to rape his wife, sister or daughter!"

On May 14 in Lahore, representatives of the state in Pakistan attempted such public humiliation for the first time when a policewoman ripped the clothes of well known lawyer Asma Jahangir and some of the other women participating in the token mini marathon on a main road of Lahore. Their transgression: simply trying to make a point - by running together with men on the side-street of a main road, to assert the right of women to non-segregated public space.

There was no big deal about it - many political demonstrations in Pakistan have been non-segregated or 'mixed'. So why attack this particular event? Because the slogan of public space and equality for women was like a red rag to the orthodox forces which include, sadly, the police, the very institution that is supposed to protect the citizenry from unlawful acts.

The unprovoked attack on the activists in Lahore was mirrored with greater vengeance over a week later, by the police and government supporters in Cairo. There, according to eyewitness accounts, the police and pro-government supporters attacked pro-democracy demonstrators, particularly women. Some were beaten, some had their clothes torn off their bodies, leaving them virtually naked, and
some were groped and manhandled. The testimonies that have since been circulated make for horrific reading.

In response, the Association of Egyptian Mothers called on all of Egypt to wear black on June 1 "calmly, and in bitter silence, for the sake of a free future" and demanded the resignation of the Interior Minister on the grounds that "women were assaulted and had their clothes torn in the street because they dared to say enough instead of remaining silent."

The Egyptian Mothers say they represent the silent majority of women, housewives and working women, and assert that "silence today is a crime
and we must stand up in united formation as a united people to defend the Egyptian woman and girl."

"We emphasise that we are not from the Kifaya(Enough) movement (which had called the demonstration of May 25) and do not belong to any political force, legal or otherwise. But when the Egyptian woman pays the price of her political participation with the sanctity of her body and her honour, then every Egyptian mother and all of Egypt will go out in clothes of mourning to tell the Interior Minister: 'We want your

The Egyptian journalists' union has also demanded the dismissal of Interior Minister Habib al-Adli. And another informal grouping of women has launched a "White Ribbon national apology campaign," initiated by Ghada Shahbandar, a teacher and member of Kifaya, together with a
female television presenter and a housewife. This campaign, popularised by emails and cell phone text messaging has received tremendous feedback and support, said Shahbander talking to AFP, in a
report posted by Al Jazeera in its English language website on May 31.

The call to wear black began apparently with the initiative of a leading Muslim feminist Hiba Rauf Izzat, a political science professor at Cairo University, who posted it on the internet two days after the May 25 incident. "The next day it was all over the place," she told AFP. "I just mirrored the sentiment of thousands of people. It's not a movement, not a party, it's just citizens fiercely defending what is left of their public space."

And that, it seems, is what it's all about.

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