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Misogynist State

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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 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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