When Aurat March was Attacked by Islamists in Islamabad

Source: Reuters

On March 8, when progressive and liberal women were marching for their rights in Islamabad, and the Islamist parties decided to march alongside them. No, hell did not freeze over. The “Haya March” or the “Honor March” was meant to counter the agenda of the Women’s March on International Women’s Day. And the ingenious Islamabad Capital Administration, which had to be convinced to allow space to Aurat Azadi March, thought it necessary to allow the Islamist rally to be held right next to it at the National Press Club.

A natural consequence of this disastrous setup was chaos, indiscipline, and violence resulting in multiple injuries. Fortunately, nobody lost their life, even though the savage mullahs almost ensured it. And many of us, the citizens of Rawalpindi and Islamabad, were there to witness it.

While I have not favored the idea of attending the women’s march for years, primarily because I believe that men should not occupy women’s space on the occasion. Especially when a lot of enemies of the march had infiltrated just to harass women, as a few cases came out. However, I knew it was different this time because it was more like an ideological battlefield and we had to show up to show solidarity, other than covering it for a documentary. And the protest plot outside the National Press Club sure looked like a battlefield alright.

The March day afternoon was partly clear after a rainy morning and the assembly area was all wet and muddy. A tent fence divided both sides of the road by the Press Club leading to the F6 market and on the far side, the Haya March and its rally were to take place. Before any activity would begin on the progressive side on the assembly area, the Jamaat-e-Islami women were done marching as bus after bus with Jamaat-e-Islami flags would transport workers to the venue. However, the burka-clad women stuck around, apart from the Hijabi types who were also leading a rally, for the speeches by the “Ulema” or religious scholar leaders of the three Islamist groups organizing the march, Jamaat-e-Islami, Sunni Ittehad, and JUI-F.

Throughout the day, inflammatory speeches were heard from the other side. In just about any given speech, women in the Aurat March, just a few meters away were condemned as prostitutes, as women who would sell their bodies to the highest bidder. Despite all the venom, which was left unnoticed by the Islamabad Capital Territory Police, apparently already bracing for a riot by the looks of their gear, no reaction came from the progressive side. Meanwhile, the police did not bother to intervene to stop the hate speech and did not think for a minute what consequences it could possibly have. It is funny how the Islamabad DC was having a hard time allowing the Aurat March but did not lift a finger when the participants of the reactionary Islamist March showed up.

However, after all the speeches of the high officials of the Islamist alliance were over, their women participants, very few of who got to even speak, were ordered to exit the venue. Once they were gone, all the “political workers” positioned themselves to attack the fragile tent curtain partition separating them from the Aurat March. They started throwing large stones, bricks, canes, and shoes at the Aurat March and finally stormed on, barely controlled by the cops.

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A few people even got injured during the assault who were taken for medical help. But perhaps the most dangerous instance was Women Democratic Front leader Ismat Shahjahan who led the fight in Islamabad getting hit by a stone in her head. This could very easily have resulted in anything and the goons from JUI-F, Jamaat-e-Islami, and Sunni Ittehad did not consider the possible consequences of their actions for a moment. They indeed carried out the threats of their leader made a few days ago.

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The most condemnable bit was that Islamabad Police, always pandering to the violent religious forces, had refused the Aurat March participants to go ahead on the agreed-upon route. Ironically, the ICT Headquarters building was right next to the Press Club. Led by Tooba Syed, the march stopped in front of the building and vowed to block the road until the march was permitted to follow its route all the way to D-Chowk near the Parliament House. She, along with many other women activists of the Women Democratic Front, showed immense courage in the face of threats to their lives and had their voices heard.

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Since the Lal Masjid controversy, Islamabad has essentially become a battleground for secular political elements and the established theocratic fundamentalists in the country. Perhaps nothing manifests this conflict better than this single incident during the Aurat March, one which could have so easily resulted in the loss of life.

However, the courage displayed by the women in the face of violence and intimidation, especially the leadership of Women Democratic Forum under Ismat Shahjahan and Tooba Syed, gave anyone witnessing those scenes goosebumps. So many had tears in their eyes on the way forward and on the way back, not because they were afraid, hurt, or intimidated, but because they were proud to be a part of history.

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This is why Aurat March looks like a revolution and perhaps without its moment, it would not have proved so iconic. Bold, confident, emancipated women pissing social conservative mullahs and their allies off so much that they can barely hold themselves back from attacking them. It is simply shocking but that is what defines gender relations in Pakistan today.

The women have spoken up. They are marching and nothing can stop them now.

The Zindagi Tamasha Affair: The Spectacle of Blackmail by Blasphemy Censorship

Source: Khoosat Films

Filmmaker and free speech hero Sarmad Sultan Khoosat, who is arguably the most brilliant filmmaking mind in Pakistan, has just announced the release of his film “Zindagi Tamasha.” The film, perhaps controversially, portrays a naatkhwaan or a hymn reciter, played by Arif Ali, with a compromised reputation due to a sexually explicit leaked video as evident from the trailer. Nobody has watched the film yet, with its clearly fascinating story and stunning imagery and poster graphic design, such as the religious protagonist wearing a dupatta, a feminine article of clothing, but it has already hit a roadblock.

It was clear from the very beginning that the film was testing the waters of acceptance and free speech in Pakistan. The film has been passed by the Censor Board but not without event. According to Sarmad in one of the “meet and greet events” of the film, only curse words are bleeped while no line has been cut. However, his initial trailer had to be taken down and cut from the new trailer version. The earlier trailer had an ingenious shot of children on the swings chanting “Labaik Ya Rasoolullah,” revered by the Barelvi/TLP.

The recently emerged but notoriously nasty Tehreek Labaik Pakistan, a Barelvi anti-blasphemy and group headed by Khadim Hussain Rizvi, has announced countrywide protests against the film on January 22 as it allegedly “mocks Islamic values.” The film trailer has certain lines that allude to religious clerics committing sodomy and abusing young boys, while at another place, it shows perhaps a Barelvi cleric threatening the protagonist with a blasphemy threat.

Source: Khoosat Films

Sarmad Sultan Khoosat is a brave filmmaker who has made bold films such as “Manto” about the controversial Urdu author. However, this episode is apparently even too much for him. Sarmad has been receiving threatening calls and messages, asking him to cancel the release of the film and warning about dire results. Sarmad, being the sensitive and peaceful artist that he is, is now considering canceling the release of the film. He has been forced to cancel the promotion events of the film in Karachi.

 

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In an open letter heavy with disappointment, Sarmad explained how the film was much more than a film for him, on which he had dedicated two years of his life and perhaps his entire career spending. The film that has won Kim Ji-Seok Award at the Busan International Film Festival, is surely not one that can be dismissed as a mediocre effort. However, it appears that theocratic thuggery is more important in this society than an artist’s statement.

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It is indeed a new low for the state of free speech in the country that a religious fundamentalist group is now hijacking the release of a motion picture. It is indeed a direct consequence of the deep state sponsoring and enabling religious fundamentalism for years, despite the recent crackdown against the TLP.

Source: Sadia Nazir

However, the genie of Islamic fundamentalism is out of the lamp, and it probably can only be undone with drastic and authoritarian measures, which will surely seem unfair and counter to religious freedom to most. However,

Every Pakistani who claims to uphold the arts and should be ashamed of it.

As of today, the censor film board has invited the members of the TLP and the government to the screening of the film for review again and the release of the film has been postponed. Let us just hope that the audiences in Pakistan get to watch at least a part of this milestone film made specifically for them.

The fate of Zindagi Tamasha hangs in the balance. Nobody is sure about the release, not even the filmmakers. But if you can be sure of one fact, it’s that Pakistani cinema audiences will be missing a great treat under heavy censorship which has no reason to be in this day and age.

With attitudes such as this, it makes you wonder if Pakistan deserves a “revival of cinema” at all. All we deserve and need are military produced shitfests and Mullah-approved scripts.