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Marathon for Civil Liberties

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By Farooq Sulehria

Lahore: Hundreds of citizens, mainly women, succeeded in making a symbolic protest in defence of civil liberties in the form of a "mixed micro-marathon" from Liberty Round Gulberg to Qaddafi Stadium on May 21 afternoon after being afforded full protection by the police, according to Daily Times.

Full Report by Daily Times: The mixed-run, announced by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and Joint Action Committee (JAC) for Peoples Rights, was given permission to hold the rally only on Saturday morning by Chief Minister Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi who also assured full security to the organisers of the event.

Some police high ups told Daily Times that the Punjab government had decided to permit the HRCP to hold the race on Friday night but deliberately did not tell the organisers until Saturday morning. "They did this both to avoid the possibility of any trouble from the mullahs and to ensure that many potential participants, especially women, would stay away from the rally fearing trouble and participation would not swell to threatening proportions", said one source. Heavy contingents of police were deployed everywhere on the Main Boulevard in Gulberg near Liberty Chowk and the police did not obstruct the rally’s progress at any stage.

Indeed, at one point, Asma Jahangir, HRCP chairperson, was allowed to climb on to the bonnet of a police jeep and address the participants (see picture). The "micro-marathan" also attracted significant local and international media coverage.

The participants gathered at the Liberty Chowk in small and big groups and chanted slogans against mullahism. Slogans like "Mullahism Murdabad", "Stop terrorism of mullahs", "We want our rights", "No rule of bullet and baton", "We want Quaid-e-Azam’s Pakistan", were screamed full-throatedly from start to finish. PPP leaders Qasim Zia, Rana Aftab Ahmad and others also gave token support.

The "race" started at 5:00 pm sharp with the blowing of a whistle by Asma Jahangir, who wore a sweatshirt over her shalwar-kameez that was emblazoned with the slogan "No going back." A number of civil society groups and representatives of different political parties, especially Pakistan Peoples Party, and a number of dignitaries of the city also joined the mixed-run, which ended peacefully and cheerfully outside the Qadafi Stadium.

"This is not a matter of victory or defeat for anyone," said Asma Jahangir after the event. "It is a proof of enlightenment, of liberalism and respect for civil rights," she claimed. She said: "I salute you people for attending the marathon for your rights."

Earlier, a few people from some extremist groups like Ahl-e-Hadith Youth Force, Shahbab-e-Milli and Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, led by Hafiz Salman Butt MNA and a local JUI-F leader Maulana Saifullah Saif, also staged a counter demonstration near Liberty Chowk before the mixed-run started but they were stopped by the police from advancing towards the mixed-runners. However, they continued to raise anti-liberal slogans.

The symbolic mixed-run was announced by the HRCP and JAC in protest against the violent MMA attack on the mixed-runers by the city police last Saturday in Lahore and last month in Gujranwala.

"This was a win-win situation for both Punjab CM Pervez Elahi and the HRCP/JAC", said one senior journalist. "Mr Elahi can claim he has promoted a soft and democratic image of Pakistan by allowing and protecting the rally and the Organisers can claim that they didn’t succumb to government pressure or mullah threats against the rally."

Farooq Tariq , Secretary Labour Party Pakistan (LPP), narrates his experiance in a report circulated on socialist_pakistan_news@yahoo.com list:

The story of Lahore Marathon for civil liberties

Last night, on 20th May, I was once again called by the Superintendent of Police of Lahore. He told me not to attend the Lahore Marathon as it violated the law. I told him not to violate our right to assemble and that JAC as well as Labour Party Pakistan (LPP) activists in Lahore will be there. He threatened me of dire consequences in case I participate. I refused to budge.

Joint Action Committee for Peoples Right (JAC) had given call for a Mix Lahore Marathon on 21st May, after an unsuccessful attempt on 13th May. Over 40 of us were arrested on 13th May while trying to run jointly that is to say women and men together. The JAC is an alliance of 30 social and political organizations. LPP is an active member of JAC. I was elected as one of the seven organizing members of Lahore Marathon.

The Lahore police and the local administration had declared the race as an illegal act. We did not ask for the permission rather informed the Lahore administration about the event. The Lahore Mayor in a public statements warned of the possible arrests if the race went ahead.

Religious fundamentalists had threatened to stop the race by force. They had statements in all the national media saying point blank that only over their dead bodies a joint marathon would take place. The JAC refused to buw in the face of these threats. We also went to the press with same defiance saying marathon would go ahead at any cost.

The Musharaf regime and the religious fundamentalist were united in stopping the Lahore marathon. The race exposed the united Mullah Military Alliance (MMA: abbreviation for fundamentalist alliance Muttahida Majlis e Amal is often termed as Mullah Millitary Alliance to ridicule MMA) despite all the rhetoric both engage in to show if they are not partners.

Earlier on the day on 20th, a JAC meeting was attended by over 40 with a mood of defiance. We argued that a marathon despite all the threats by the regime and the Mullahs would give a massive boost to the progressive forces in Pakistan. But if we failed and cancelled the race, then Lahore would also be under the political control of the religious fundamentalists. The fanatics had already stopped by force a joint marathon on 3rd April 2005 in another big city of Pakistan, Gujranwala, 60 kilometer from Lahore.

We argued that our defense would be participation of our activists in large numbers and that if police stopped us, we would resist.

Today, I arrived in the morning with four LPP activists at a proposed place to meet Asma Jehanghir as had been agreed in the meeting. It was decided that we would shield Asma in case of an attack. The Senior Superintendent of Police in Lahore requested Asma Jahangir this morning to change the rout of the Lahore Marathon and that it was still illegal to hold the rally. But the mood of the SSP seemed changed. Last night, I ignored the advices from the comrades to not to sleep at my home and decided to stay at home with the family, despite a real threat of being arrested.

After consultation with the crisis committee we agreed to change the route but not the marathon. It was not a big deal. We arrived at Asma house at 2.30pm nearby the Liberty Chouck from where the race had to began at 5pm. We were getting reports that religious fundamentalists were coming to the place and that police had cordoned off the place.

The LPP comrades did not come to the center today, as this was too risky. We had planned our LPP strategy after the JAC meeting.

We left from Asma house at around 4.45pm with around 100 or so. There was a lot of media including BBC and Reuters. We were not stopped by police as they had announced. It meant that they had retreated. When we reached the Liberty Chouck, several hundreds more were waiting for us. The main slogans of the Marathon were : down with mullah military alliance, down with Mushraf, we will snatch our civil liberties, where are the mullahs, Mullahs have run away, No to religious fanaticism, no to mullahism. Apart from LPP, Pakistan Peoples Party leadership also participated in the race.

The religious fanatics came in their dozens but were stopped by the police. They did not dare break the barriers erected by the police. They used filthy language. Their case against the race was that joint marathon was against Islamic culture. They had a weak case.

On our side, there was a fighting mood and fighting spirit. We as the leaders of this marathon had shown that we would fight and were not afraid of the religious fanatics. It paid back. Many youth came from different city colleges.

There were over 200 women and may be 500 men. I was hand in hand with Asma when we started the race as a symbol of men and women running together. At the Qazafi stadium, Asma and I climbed a parking police van to speak to the participants. She in her very short speech thanked Lahorites for their participation and that Lahore has won, the religious fanatics have lost. She asked every one to disperse peacefully.

There was lot enthusiasm for this successful Lahore Marathon for civil liberties. This has motivated many. This has shown many that we can fight against the growing onslaught of the religious fanatics.

Below is a comemnt by renowned journalist Beena Sarwar in The News on Sunday ( May 22) on previous marathon and police violence.

Pakistan continues to hit headlines around the world for all the wrong reasons. On May 3, it was the journalists that the Islamabad and Lahore police roughed up as they demonstrated on World Press Freedom Day. Barely ten days later, on May 14, human rights activists got the rough end of the stick as they geared up for a symbolic run in Lahore, to assert the right of women to public space.

The women who were leading the run were especially targeted, in particular the lawyer Asma Jahangir who has become a symbol of the human rights movement in Pakistan.

The point is not that these people were violating Section 144, which prohibits the assembly of more than four people in a public place. As Asma Jahangir says, even if they had committed murder, the police had no right to humiliate the women and try to expose their bodies.

Secondly, Section 144 is routinely imposed in our cities, most often to restrict the public mobility of political opponents; somehow it never seems to apply to the 'bearded brigade' that are allowed to hold 'million marches' and attack women participating in a marathon, as in Gujranwala not so long ago. Why did they not attack anyone at the Lahore marathon on January 30 this year? It was the success of that event that led the Punjab Sports Board to plan a series of other marathons, including Gujranwala.

The government then tacitly accepted the religious extremists' point of view, releasing those who had led the Gujranwala attack and holding the remaining marathons as segregated events. MMA activists armed with sticks stood around menacingly outside the Sargodha stadium inside which the women ran -- their restriction to this confined space defeating the very purpose of a marathon which means a long distance run -- having announced that they would teach any woman a lesson who dared try and run outside. The police stood by watching.

Similarly, when a welfare trust in Khairpur wanted to hold a fund-raising all-women event, the police initially refused to grant them permission on the grounds that the 'religious' group active in the area would not like it. (So now, as one women's rights activist put it, we're reduced to taking permission from the mullahs to hold public events.)

When Khairpur Nazim Nafisa Shah directed the police to allow the fund-raiser to take place, its organisers found the ground taken over by the so-called religious activists, who prevented the mela from starting for some nine hours as the police watched meekly. Finally, Ms Shah managed to negotiate for the event to take place at an alternative venue. But there too, the mullahs raised objections at the last minute, insisting that the ferris wheel would not be allowed, as boys outside would be able to see the girls at the top.

This time, Ms Shah refused to negotiate further, and the nervous organisers held the event as planned. The 'religious' activists then demonstrated outside her office and in the market place, undisturbed by the police, hurling the choicest, most unprintable invectives. Their actions, apparently, are exempt from offending 'religious sentiments', or falling in the realm of 'obscenity' and 'vulgarity'.

Policemen and women themselves, while attacking the participants of the symbolic Lahore marathon recently, used the filthiest language against women -- including words and phrases that many of those present had never heard before. They dragged women by the hair, and tore clothes. The policewoman who attacked Asma Jahangir and ripped her shirt open, exposing the back, said she had orders to strip and humiliate Asma in public. In doing this, she was egged on by a (bearded) plainclothesman. Three policewomen who apparently disapproved of this activity told some marathon participants that this woman was especially trained to tear women's clothes, particularly at PPP rallies.

The administration initially justified the police presence as necessary to protect the activists from the Jamaat's student wing which allegedly was threatening to disrupt the event. "Instead of preventing them, the administration decided to stop the race," comments a participant. "In fact the religious activists were not even there and came after the police action, most probably at the administration's request."

Some defend what happened on the grounds that the marathon participants were violating Section 144. One response to the news report of the incident, posted on an email list, sums up this point of view aptly: "It has been highlighted as violation of human rights but I personally agree that whatever govt, police did was right. As section 144 was already imposed then y did hrcp want to have marathon? The best remedy was that hrcp should have gone into a logical dialogue and requested government to allow them for marathon."

The writer, who is incidentally a woman, concludes that Asma Jahangir "is responsible for her insult torn clothes and arrests of other human rights activists."

This reasoning betrays two lines of thinking that are detrimental to democratic values. One is that if the government chooses to be unreasonable and deny citizens public space for a demonstration meant to highlight the right of women to that public space, the citizens should meekly go home.

The second, more sinister line of thinking, is that if a woman transgresses in any way, she is herself responsible for any subsequent attack on her person. It is this mindset that justifies rape, murder in the name of 'honour' (karo kari, as this is known in some areas), domestic violence, and acid attacks.

Public processions and demonstrations are rarely segregated events in Pakistan. That has never been an issue before. As the HRCP said in a press release following the police action, "Forcibly preventing participation in public events by women can act only to encourage extremism, and send out a message to orthodox elements that their actions are condoned by the state."

It is these elements that are making women's participation in public events into an issue. They openly admire the Taliban, black out women's faces on billboards, and are against girls' education, going to the extent of blowing up girls' schools -- as they did recently in Bajaur agency.

It is these elements that the government claims to stand against -- yet tacitly encourages by falling in line with their agendas, and using them as an excuse to crush those it should be supporting.

The marathon was widely covered by the national media

 

 
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