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.

Aurat March Exposes a Moral Crisis in Pakistani Men

The opening week of March was revolutionary in terms of gender politics in Pakistan in many ways. Women leaders and activists made a greater impact than ever before for rallying for the Women’s March, and men all over the internet were triggered.

Leading the response of social conservative misogynistic Pakistani men was their patron saint, Khalil-ur-Rehman Qamar. Presented by the Pakistani conservative media as an intellectual, it is their answer to the rhetoric of educated liberal and progressive women who have started pushing the narrative of feminism in public discourse.

A long time anti-intellectual, Khalil-ur-Rehman Qamar had recently caught attention with a hideous woman-hating interview, and many of his plays apparently depict women in the same light. Not to take away the artist’s license, but when you pose yourself as a philosopher of life and preach about puritanical sexuality, then surely it becomes hard to separate art from propaganda. Especially when your top client is the state propaganda machinery anyway.

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On a television talk show, Khalil-ur-Rehman Qamar lost his temper and verbally abused and attacked feminist analyst and commentator Marvi Sirmed. All when they were discussing the Pakistani feminist slogan “Mera Jism Meri Marzi” or “My Body, My Choice.” Not only did he degraded Marvi but just like all conversations about Aurat March, he alluded to those women being sexually corrupt. Such comments were also widely made across the conservative media as well as the allegation of implementing a foreign-funded agenda.

Unfortunately, most of the people in socially conservative Pakistan believe that it is women talking about their right to have as much sex they want. While it should indeed be a part of their freedom, but it is not the only freedom indeed. Women particularly are talking about their right to be left alone, to not be harassed or raped, and yes, even to have their reproductive choice.

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With the likes of Khalil-ur-Rehman Qamar, even otherwise seemingly liberal figures, and unfortunately encouraged by ignorant social conservative politicians such as Faisal Javed Khan, conservative men in Pakistan have taken it upon themselves to harass women for speaking up for their rights. They have been slut-shaming the organizers and the participants of the Women’s March, and furthermore, stooping as low as to block the public space they have been trying to occupy.

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This mindset is evident from the coverage of gotcha conservative “journalist” Yasir Shami, trying to blackmail and shame a male ally at the Aurat March by invoking Islamic traditions.

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It was inspired by the same anti-intellectualism and outright bigotry that the Lal Masjid goons, the same infamous mosque in the middle of Islamabad that had threatened armed rebellion against the state, that vandalized Aurat March artwork and posters. JUI-F chief Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman, an otherwise democratic politician, also threatened violence if the Aurat March materialized.

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And if you think that this is extreme behavior only exhibited by the orthodox religious conservatives, there is no shortage of their supposed moderate and liberal allies who are socially conservative at heart and still want to perpetuate regressive roles for women. A similar mindset was at work when a conservative lawyer filed a petition with the Islamabad High Court to block Aurat March on the charge that it was against Islamic values. Challenged by the Women Democratic Forum led by Ismat Shahjahan, the relatively liberal judge Athar Minallah threw the petition out.

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It was an act of sheer courage itself that brave women political workers of the Women Democratic Front and the Awami Workers Party led by Tooba Syed went from street to street to put up posters for the March 8 event. This was probably unimaginable a few years back in the Islamic Republic but the courageous progressive women have made their presence felt on the ground in recent years.

This war of words between social conservatives and progressive women and their male allies have turned International Women’s Day into a battle of ideologies. However, the saddest bit is that in a country where vulnerable women and children have little protection from rape, the patriarchy is trying to suffocate and eliminate any dissent rebelling against their oppressive structure. At least, it had some immediate impact as Geo TV Network was forced to end their recently concluded contract with Khalil-ur-Rehman Qamar.

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However, none of the bullying and abuse has been able to stop these women to have their voices heard. The scenes in their press conferences chanting the slogan that has become the bane of the life of conservative men in Pakistan were surreal. The way women marched this March 8 under the banner of Women Democratic Front has probably never been seen ever since Zia-ul-Haq took power in Pakistan. Each moment of the March was revolutionary and we can hear and see the foundations of Pakistan.

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At least, their morals have been laid bare for the whole world to see.

That’s why women say, “Mera Jism, Meri Marzi.”

Standing Up to Your Government’s Tyranny

Source: Reuters/ABC News

This iconic image means a lot to our generation. A generation that has only heard distantly about dangerous fascist threats in World War II movies and novels does not realize what it means to stand up to that government.

We absolutely have no idea about the courage and bravery of this great figure who decided to stand up to the tyranny and might of his authoritarian government. On the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre that resulted in hundreds of deaths, the number and extent of which nobody knows,  It was perhaps the last major push for a democratic China ever since the It is unthinkable that citizens in China today, except for those who witnessed and suffered it first hand, are not even aware of the scale of the atrocities that their government committed that day. ‘

It should only send shivers down our spine as citizens of Pakistan today that we are not dealing with a very different situation with the authoritarian military regime and its installed government in Islamabad. It should particularly unnerve the Pakistani youth with a hope of freedom and democracy in their hearts and minds, that the same Chinese regime that unleashed this tyranny on its people is knocking at the door and is already inside the boundaries of Pakistan in the name of CPEC and Belt and Road. More than ever before, the Pakistani government is adopting their ways to curb political freedom in the country. They are even here with their own version of the internet, which threatens free access to the internet for the people of Pakistan for the time to come.

Pakistan’s unhinged and unaccountable military regime, which does not even hide its intentions to undermine civilian democracy in Pakistan, is not bothered by any such concerns. Its state instruments are cracking down on the dissidents of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement on this very day, beating them and charging them with batons. Only days ago, protestors from the movement were directly fired upon as more stories of their violence on the Pashtun tribals appear on the global media.

At times like these, you cannot but admire the courage of the people who stand up to such tyranny and brutality without the fear of their personal freedom and safety. Especially in a country where extrajudicial detentions are the norm.

Maybe you are driven to be that fearless when you are really left with no choice.

State Killers for Hire?

Source: YouTube video capture

Extrajudicial killings by state entities have become a norm in Pakistan. When the supposed exceptions of the excessive force by the state will be given free passes, those will eventually become the practice.

Indeed, on the other side of the picture, the same state offers complete impunity to violent rioters when it suits its political agenda to undermine civilian politicians. But unfortunately, the draconian iron hand of the state law enforcement goes far behind this.

This weekend, a family was allegedly shot dead, including a father and a mother and their teenage daughter, in front of the younger children that accompanied them, by the Counter Terrorism Department of Punjab Police on their way to Burewala from Lahore on the motorway near Sahiwal to attend a wedding. The shooting has been termed as collateral damage by the Law Minister of Punjab in an alleged operation carried out to capture a suspected terrorist with links with the Islamic State. Even if this is true, the sanity of such an operation can be questioned, even though pretty much all the official narratives have been negated by evidence surfacing on the social media and the account of the children and eye witnesses.

This is an extraordinary occurrence in Punjab of its kind but the rest of Pakistan might not agree with it. Initially, many estimated that it could be the result of familial or tribal animosity. This may still very well be the case but the involvement of the state law enforcement changes the equation.

Does this mean that a sitting political chief in Punjab was involved in settling a personal score through state machinery? It also raises some serious question mark about the administration of the incumbent PTI who has been criticizing other parties who have remained in power to abuse police for their vested interest. The only problem is that it has probably never been used in a darker manner before.

The deceased family – Source: pakobserver,net

This situation is even more disconcerting than the Model Town massacre of the at the compound of the protesting Pakistan Awami Tehreek, which was a public affair in comparison. Regardless, even that was the use of, albeit in the name of restoring law and order over.

Either way, the factor that always gets buried in the politics of these extrajudicial killings is the lives that are ruined. Many were recalling the extrajudicial killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud in Karachi and rogue cop Rao Anwar getting a free pass. And while you don’t get to see that impact with the murder of just another young man in some remote corner of the country which includes Karachi ironically, the cruelty of the Sahiwal killing was well publicized on the local and social media. Perhaps also because of the sheer brutality of this heartless act too, which involved the shooting of parents in front of the eyes of their little children and leaving them behind.

None of us can remotely claim to understand, let alone feel, the grief of the surviving children. Google the pictures and videos of the surviving children to know what condition they were left in. But don’t, on the second thought. Even I could not stomach taking a peek at the video. It’s simply unbearable.

But this is what you get for not asking enough questions of the state authorities. And rest assured, there are still way too many people telling the outraging dissenters to hush up. Especially because this concerns the image of Pakistan.

 

A Fanatic Government Stance Laid Bare

Source: PTV News/geo.tv

There is little doubt that Geert Wilders is disingenuous when it comes to his intentions and goals when organizing the Draw the Prophet event. His main purpose is, of course, to get under the skin of Muslims around the world, especially because he precisely knows what sort of reaction he can get out of them. However, it is a free speech issue regardless of his controversial politics. The protesters thought of this idea when the mainstream Western media frequently began censoring itself whenever the depiction of Prophet Muhammad in media was involved out of the fear of backlash from the Muslim community.

The interesting thing is that no matter how civil the Muslim community tries to be in the face of such a provocation, there are always many who would resort to violence and death threats. One of the problems that more liberal Muslims are facing is that the religious orthodoxy not only permits but even encourages, violence against a person who is alleged to have blasphemed against. While liberal Muslims try their best to avoid that, the conservative far-right Christians, atheists, and other antithetical elements critical of Islam are well familiar with the weakness. Recall the Salman Rushdie Affair.

However, any of these violent actions remains to be acts of individuals. But what if the governments of a country engage in such policies. Of course, we have seen them before with Iran and Saudi Arabia. It is even worse when that government is actually making that point from a moral high ground and lecturing others on human rights. The PTI government has vowed to raise the issue at the United Nations, other than calling the dysfunctional institution of Organization of Islamic Conference, giving Wilders a bigger audience than he could wildly imagine.

Imran Khan, the new Prime Minister of Pakistan, had long been criticizing the Western idea of free speech by comparing Holocaust denial and desecrating the image of the Holy Prophet. He emphasized the same point in his special video message to the nation especially addressing the (non)issue. He points out that the Western viewpoint of free speech does not even understand the consequences of blaspheming against the Holy Prophet, which they see as freedom of speech.

Well, we can safely say that the Europeans have now understood that well enough ever since Charlie Hebdo.

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Geert Wilders, on October 30, postponed the Draw the Prophet contest citing death threats that he and people associated with the contest event were receiving. The PTI government started to claim the cancellation as an achievement of their “diplomatic efforts.” Not only has the government of Pakistan given such great importance to insignificant politicians such as Geert Wilders and his bigotry but has also exposed themselves as a state that does not respect freedom of speech. What is even worse is that the PTI

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The headlines shared by a local news channel are proudly displayed by the PTI KP Official account, which was retweeted by the official PTI account report the cancelation of the cartoon drawing contest as “a great diplomatic triumph.” The only problem is that the only diplomatic efforts that have been made to cancel the contest were the death threats made to Wilders and people connected to the event.

People all over the social media have been raising this point to criticize the government. The PTI has beautifully manipulated the issue in order to gain public approval in the manner of Tehreek Labaik Pakistan. And I am not even mentioning their ridiculous protest rally and threats endorsed by the Pakistani foreign minister, which openly called for war against the Netherlands.

But let us judge actions instead of intentions. With this claim of endorsement, PTI has laid bare its fanatic stance of endorsing death threats to a foreign lawmaker. While we are aware that Pakistan has blasphemy laws which openly endorse potentially capital punishment for alleged blasphemies, emphasizing such a narrative on the international level and shamelessly claiming something that had nothing to do with them. Pakistan has indeed endorsed terrorism before, so why should this time be an exception?

The Sanest Tweet on the Zainab Rape Murder Incident

Source: Express News

There is really nothing much to say about the Zainab rape murder incident. It’s just a shock. You can’t unsee her pictures everywhere, you can’t unsee her abused corpse and you can’t make this dull pain and strange guilt go away. You can’t make the anger go away either. But at least you can know better and not emulate the savagery of her rapist-murderers and start calling for public executions in the manner of Iran and Saudi Arabia and start tackling. It’s just symptomatic of people looking for a head. Though for a change, you didn’t have to try hard to convince most Pakistanis that it was morally outrageous.

So this is all that needs to be noticed on this day of chaos and madness and emotional distress. This is the sanest thing said on this day. Sort of brings the Nirbhaya episode to mind.

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Let me write it down in case this tweet gets deleted.

“The people who criticised lawyers defending Mumtaz Qadri were as silly as those who will criticise the lawyers who defend the rights of the Kasur rape accused. The rights of all accused must be defended, no matter how certain society and talk show hosts are of their guilt.” – @SalmanARaja

The rest of the nonsensical noise you can afford to ignore.

 

Why Pakistan Should Be On Fire But Isn’t

Source: Times of India

A lot of people have been irked by the not-even-nearly-enough inflammatory rhetoric from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif after his ouster following a business-as-usual judicial coup. Of course, nobody wants to see anarchy and disorder spread around them. It makes perfect sense.

Now that is particularly true if you live in politically dead cities such as Rawalpindi and Islamabad, and if you don’t find a bone of political activism in you. I sort of include myself in that category but no such excuses will be good enough when people will attribute the absence of political activism and a lack of civil responsibility for a weak democracy in Pakistan.

You could say that the verdict to disqualify the Prime Minister has been a resounding slap on the people of Pakistan. One day you have someone as a Prime Minister and the next day, you don’t and for no apparent good reason at all. Disqualified for life, just like that. There is someone else making that decision for you.

In many ways, the verdict is as outrageous, if not more, than corruption in carrying out the elections. Indeed, such doctoring with the legal term of an elected Prime Minister is a form of electoral corruption in itself.

We seriously need to ask ourselves this question. How do we respond to coups?

What do we do as citizens and soldiers to resist the tyrants taking over a democratically elected administration? What do we do as citizens and soldiers to actively prevent such situations? Why are coups almost always bloodless in Pakistan? Without a single shot being fired? And after all, who will fire that single shot?

Even if we ignore the Judicial ones under the pretense that the honorable Supreme Court carried out a legitimate verdict and that there was nothing political about it, we still have examples of military coups. People old enough still recall how smooth the 1999 military takeover was. Only the Prime Minister happened to get arrested.

Why is that we in Pakistan can only be amazed by the Turkish people who came together to save the government of an elected leader who is bitterly divisive? Why is it that we in Pakistan put our partisan affiliations above the office of the elected leader of the nation?

We probably would be a little more chaotic than the calm we prefer in our resistance to the bureaucratic tyranny in Pakistan if we were more committed to the constitution. Perhaps the fault lies in our political class for not being able to make a case strong enough for democracy and even for the supremacy of the constitution.

Perhaps the fault lies in our civic education that failed to convey to the people about the importance of the rights that the constitution guarantees. Perhaps it is the weakness of democracy that they fail to grasp the importance of their rights and have learned to love their tyrants.

Perhaps our democratic leaders are fools to believe that the people will go out on the streets and riot for them. They overestimate our commitment to democracy and our right to vote. They probably have no idea how we abhor political activism and even worse, much prefer unelected bureaucrats to govern us.

But in a way, it’s much better this way. Nobody wants damage to property and lives. All that for what?

We don’t want trouble. We don’t want chaos. All that too for these corrupt politicians in the name of democracy?

Pakistan might be on fire soon enough, but never for this reason.

 

This post was originally published in Dunya blogs.