By Farooq Sulehria
First things first: hats off to a band of courageous activists
that braved all kinds of threats, two weeks ago, to hold a symbolic
marathon for civil liberties. A section of the press devoted large
spaces on leader pages to demonise the marathon organisers. A
leading Urdu columnist detected a US hand behind the marathon
-- as if the US hand is that idle -- others lashed out at the
"westernised women" and yet others unleashed a campaign
against NGOs "working on the US agenda."
To settle scores, a newspaper facing a defamation case filed
in the Balochistan High Court by HRCP, published long texts of
its defence petition. Minute details of the distance covered by
the marathon were commented upon. What was not been discussed
was what the marathon was all about: civil liberties.
The smear campaign was reminiscent of a famous anecdote from
the 13th century Sufi jester, Mulla Nasruddin. A man found the
Mulla searching for something on the ground outside his house.
On being asked, Nasruddin replied that he was looking for his
key. The man also joined in the search and in due course asked
Mulla: ''Where exactly did you drop it?'' Mulla answered: ''In
my house.'' ''Then why are you looking here?'' the man asked.
''There is more light here,'' replied Mulla.
Let's go to the spot where the key was dropped. The Lahore Marathon
for Civil Liberties on May 14 was a protest in the first place
against the Gujranwala incident. The symbolic marathon was an
attempt to assert civil liberties including a non-segregated run,
and the principle that one has the right to participate in an
activity of one's choice, be it a marathon, work place, educational
institutions, sports or some cultural pursuit. This is what the
marathon was about.
The right-wing vigilantes have attacked marathons (as if mixed
marathons are against religion, and attacking unarmed women is
an act of piety) not because they are segregation fanatics, but
because segregation is a method of oppression they want to employ
to oppress different segments of the civil society.
This method has already been successfully applied against Pakistan's
religious minorities. Another example is the Punjab University
in Lahore. Taliban's Afghanistan, and Khomeni's Iran personify
a rule of oppression through segregation where the opposition
-- trade union, human rights, political activists - are silenced
in the name of implementing segregation. The sacred name of religion
is merely a cover for a method of oppression: segregation.
Incongruously, segregation is not a principle for the MMA. When
it suits them, Islam is flexible. The MMA leadership, for instance,
have not hesitated to allow their women sit in a mixed parliament.
Here, one finds a sinister nexus between the military and the
mullas. The GHQ is not ready to tolerate democracy, PPP, PML(N)
or the HRCP marathon. But if democracy, PPP (Patriot), PML(Q)
or a marathon uphold the colour khaki, the military is flexible.
That was why the first HRCP marathon was brutally broken up by
the police with Shabab-e-Milli as reserves. Athletes in shorts
(although no women wore this sports gear) did not offend any section
of the press, MMA or Shabab-e-Milli when the marathon was organised
under the auspices of the Punjab government in January.
The Lahore city administration disrupted the HRCP marathon of
May 14 on the plea that the participants were not "properly
dressed" -- although all the women were decently clad in
shalwar kameez. The city administration did not clarify what dress
it deemed proper for a marathon yet the message was clear: only
khaki enlightened moderation. Any other enlightened agenda will
be met with force.
The second HRCP marathon on May 21 was an attempt to stand up
to the mulla-military onslaught that is continually snatching
ground from under the feet of civil society. The JAC-HRCP determination
not only mobilised hundreds of more activists but also motivated
PPP and ANP leadership to show solidarity. A number of small progressive
groups, on finding an alternative, also joined to assert that
women, youth, and activists are not ready to let armed bands hold
civil society hostage at gunpoint.
The marathon was a timely action that should translate into a
process of reclaiming civil liberties being encroached upon by
the mulla military nexus for almost two decades. The task rather
demands more "marathons." Next should be a "marathon
for a decent life" guaranteeing job, health care and universal
education. Only then will the masses in Pakistan fully enjoy civil
liberties. And the struggle for a decent life also demands a defeat
for segregation, which is simply a baseless fascination.
Those who promotes segregation as an epitome of our values and
religion, has yet to come up with a solution for the seventy percent
Pakistanis living in the rural areas. Will they arrange "women
only" paddy fields? If yes, will the Basmati rice grown by
women at these fields be halal for men?
Says Bulleh Shah:
Mulla tay mashaalchi dohaan ikko chit
Loukan karday chananan, aap anhairae vich
(Mullah and the torch-bearer, both from the same flock
Guiding others; themselves in the dark)
Segregation is a tool for the forces of reaction and must be
resisted. Civil society remained silent when we began to persecute
minorities in the name of religious segregation. Now, women are
the next targets. Today a mixed marathon is attacked. Tomorrow
mixed education. Then mixed work places. This is exactly how the
Nazis seized control in Germany.
Pastor Martin Niemoeller (1892-1984) summarises the German experience:
"First they came for the Communists but I was not a Communist
so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and
the Trade Unionists but I was not one of them, so I did not speak
out. Then they came for the Jews but I was not Jewish so I did
not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left
to speak out for me."
Last but not least. The marathon should also be an eye opener
for a section of liberals who, deceived by the talk about Kamal
Attaturk, expect Musharraf to undo Zia´s doings. The generals
play the pious or the enlightened Muslim as the situation demands.
The Afghan jihad needed a pious Muslim: Ziaul Haq. The "war
on terrorism" requires an enlightened moderate: Musharraf.
But by denying democracy the mother of all civil liberties
- Musharraf is not helping the liberals who expect GHQ to fight
a proxy war for them. To reclaim civil liberties, it will take
much more than two, three, or many marathons.