A lot can be learned about the state of the country today by who is allowed to hold public events and who isn’t. So, while the violent extremists of the TLP are free to hold entire cities hostage, a small group of women who only wanted to have a bike rally in Peshawar, and even obtained a No-Objection Certificate from the authorities, are pressurised into cancelling their event. The bike rally was organised by Zama Jawandoon, a women’s rights organisation that was holding the rally this past Saturday to reclaim public space that is often denied to women. Once religious parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamiat Ulema Islam got wind of the event, however, they threatened to protest it for promoting ‘obscenity’. The real obscenity here is that political parties have given themselves veto power over who is allowed out on the streets. When they threaten counter-protests, it is not simply that they are also exercising their constitutional right to public protest. Their call for protest comes with the implied threat of violence. In such a climate, it is understandable that the group decided to call off its rally but it is also unfortunately true that whenever an inch is given to such right-wing views they end up taking a mile.
Religious groups threatening violence is the most extreme example of the fear men feel at the thought of women carrying out everyday tasks but we should not fool ourselves into thinking that the problem is isolated to a violent few. From leering, catcalling and even worse forms of harassment, men have done everything they can to create a climate of danger for women in public places. It is also important to not underestimate the class angle to this problem. Public transport is particularly dangerous for women, and gentrification, in the form of entrance fees for public parks and beaches, has made even the few spaces that are open unaffordable for many. It can be easy to scoff at groups that just want to increase the visibility of women but as the incident in Peshawar has shown even doing something as fundamental as affirming the right to exist invites threats and danger. Certainly the government should have ensured the safety of the bike rally and not allowed it to be cancelled, but Pakistani men too need to reflect on their own culpability for making this country so unsafe for women.