By Beena Sarwar
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
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'
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
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