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.

A Victory for Hateful Ideologues

Source: Al-Jazeera

Perhaps the most toxic idea that I have learned about as a native Indian is the Two-Nation Theory. To most Hindu and Pakistani nationalists, communal violence in India is a great ideological victory. A vindication of their convictions. A “Thank You Jinnah” or “Hail Savarkar” moment. None of the communal violence that you see in India is a coincidence. The Indian Right Wing, dominated by Savarkar’s Hindutva philosophy, a reactionary cultural nationalist movement that largely sees Islam or any “foreign” faith as a threat to the “Indic civilization,” had been patiently building the popular support for a Hindu nationalist rule. It would have gone

The week following Shivratri and Delhi’s election with Aam Aadmi Party getting a sweeping victory was perhaps the bloodiest in North Eastern Delhi in living memory. The “Hindu retaliation” was in response to the street protests of the Muslim community in North-Eastern Delhi in the wake of the passage of the controversial CAA or Citizen Amendment Act, which singles out Muslims as a community. The retaliation particularly erupted after an angry speech by local BJP leader Kapil Mishra who warned of consequences for protesters blocking those neighborhoods in the capital. At least 30 people lost their lives, mostly Muslims, as a result, except dozens getting injured and losing their homes and businesses.

I recall that no too long ago, I used to have heated discussions with my fellow citizens in Pakistan about the Indian secularism and the BJP being a theocratic, fundamentalist political party. Even though I still believe India is a secular democracy as of this date, I do confess that I have to reconsider my stance on Narendra Modi’s and Amit Shah’s BJP. I do believe that the BJP is not any different from a dangerous theocratic party such as the Jamaat-e-Islami and the TLP in Pakistan. The supporters of these hate groups are potential murderers of their opponents and are very dangerous people indeed.

This is not just a matter of opinion anymore, it has become an almost verifiable fact with plenty of evidence on social media. Examine the commentary of any pro-Hindutva or even a moderate BJP supporter and you will find an openly Islamophobic and malicious intention to purge India of anything that does not fit their view of what is supposed to be Hindu patriotism. They have successfully otherized a minority, Muslims, and convinced their followers that they are an oppressed majority persecuted by Muslims whose faith is a constant existential threat to them. Here are only a few specimens but you can literally follow them to read and watch such bile at just about any time of the day.

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That’s alright. This is their politics and they are proud of the fact but actually taking them as serious, well-meaning people reflect poorly on people who give their opinions space. I am always willing to listen to them but I wonder what many of the Muslims, especially those of the Bengali or Rohingya descent, might think about them. It is more like talking to your potential killer, you know, the kind of feeling a Pakistani Christian, Hindu, or Ahmedi might go through when speaking to a Sunni Punjabi.

In the end, Indian Hindus, and yes, largely Indian Hindus will decide how they want to see their country. Do they want to see it a bastion of theocratic nationalism that it is on the path of becoming, cornering, if not eliminating, unfavorable minorities, kind of like Pakistan, or whether it wants to be a liberal, secular democracy where each citizen has an equal chance, at least in theory. The Hindu-Muslim riots may be an ideological victory for communitarian theocrats in the subcontinent but it surely threatens the idea of the Indian Republic that gave the people of this land a hope after a dark partition.

As for Pakistanis such as myself, the death of a secular India will mean the death of a political idealism that associated us with the Indian subcontinent. With darkness all around, perhaps the American Constitution remains the only last hope for a liberal democracy if it is not consumed by partisan polarized politics in the United States.

So what if Indian democracy is dead.