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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 organised by the Chief Minister's Task Force, the Sports Board Punjab was organising 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 rights".

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 organisation 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 organisation for the women's mela had more to do with the organisers' 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 organisation 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 it.

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 demonstrators chanted:

"Aik pakora tel ke andar
Jaali mullah jail ke andar!"

Courtesy: The News (April 24, 2020)

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