Be it our government functionaries, state officials, or religious leaders, they waste no time in condemning terrorism against Muslims in other countries. That’s how it should be. The outpour of anger displayed after the recent attack on a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, was understandable and needed. We loved it when the 38-year-old prime minister of New Zealand – who happens to be a woman – not only showed deep sorrow, regret, and empathy with the victims and their families, but also took immediate action against guns, hate-mongering, and incitement to violence.
But it is intriguing when a similar reaction is not given in Pakistan. On the contrary, the government and state become complicit in propagating intolerance and violence. Just a look at some of the events taking place in recent weeks makes it abundantly clear that intolerance, patriarchy, religious bigotry, and prejudices are being overlooked and that has resulted in an ever-increasing incidence of forced conversions, murders, and violence and threats of dire consequences against feminists and liberal and progressive voices in society. Both the government and state are inactive and rather passive in their responses.
Take for example the resolution passed by the KP Assembly against the Freedom March that was organised by women’s organisations on March 8. Regretfully, the resolution was presented by a woman assembly member Rehana Ismael, belonging to MMA, a religious alliance that came into being during the regime of military dictator and usurper General Pervez Musharraf. The MMA was recently revived and has a presence in both national and provincial assemblies. The resolution number 157 starts by reiterating that Pakistan is a country given to Muslims by Allah Almighty and it is based on the ideology of Islam.
It goes on to say that only an Islamic system is needed in the country. The resolution condemns the ‘attempts and efforts made by some hidden forces to undermine the family structure in Pakistan’. Some invisible forces, according to the resolution, are also ‘trying to disintegrate the social fabric of values in the country’. The resolution specifically targets Women’s Day rallies held in the country and the placards and slogans raised in them. The resolution calls them shameless and un-Islamic. The resolution calls for strict actions by federal and provincial governments ‘against the forces that are conspiring against the Islamic foundations of the country’.
The most disappointing matter is that not only the MMA, which is known for its religious and anti-liberal rhetoric, but also the female assembly members belonging to the ANP and the PPP also signed the resolution. Even the first woman to become speaker of the KP Assembly, Mehar Taj Roghani, also approved of the resolution. She particularly condemned the slogan about a woman’s decision making power over her own body. As per her interpretation, this is against our culture and religion. Let’s for a minute ponder over this slogan which is neither obscene nor anti-religion.
When a woman claims and demands decision-making power over her body, she wants to be able to say no. We are living in the 21s century in which thousands of years old customs and traditions cannot be imposed, even if they have been our tradition. Disrespect and violation of the body, be it male or female, is torture. No one should try to justify that torture in the name of religion or tradition. Be it rape, marital rape, forced conversion, child abuse, staring, violation of personal space, all come under violation of body and soul.
Luckily, there are women among us who are able and willing to challenge this patriarchal definition of culture and religion. Activists, journalists, performers, and writers such as Ismat Shahjahan, Marvi Sirmed, Nida Kirmani, Dr Sadia Kamal, Sehar Baloch, Sheema Kermani, and many others are the ones who are keeping the fight on and refusing to be cowed down by the onslaught of patriarchal mindset, often also projected by women such as Rehana Ismael and Mehar Taj who ostensibly claim to protect women but end up promoting a patriarchal agenda of the medieval ages.
Take another example from Lyari in Karachi where mosques were used to incite violence against women marchers. In Lyari, Baloch women are politically and socially conscious and participated in the Aurat March with enthusiasm. The local activists and journalists who mobilised and organised these women have become a target of hatred and threats. According to news reports, loudspeakers were used in at least three Lyari mosques to declare these activists and journalist foreign agents. Friday sermons were used to incite the local people against these activists who, according to the sermons, were a bad influence on local girls.
Soon these messages were posted on social media and threats were hurled at the activists. Now even some national-level religious leaders such as Fazlur Rahman have come out in the open to threaten all those who attempt to liberalise society. His video circulating on social media is unequivocal in its message that the religious lobby will act forcefully against women marches, rallies, or even marathon races. This rhetoric is not new and we have heard and seen all this multiple times in the 72-year history of this country. What is different is a wide-spread social acceptance of such threats.
This is not the result of recent developments. This is the consequence of a continuous suppression of liberal and progressive voices by state institutions in the county and an unending covert and at times overt support to sectarian and religious outfits in Pakistan. Many placards were doctored and photoshopped with obscene slogans and circulated to malign the Aurat March and its participants. This is like propagating false news and hate speech but no action has been taken against them as yet. Dozens of women have been threatened with dire consequences and violence but both the government and the state are silent.
Up until now only the PPP leadership, spearheaded by Bilawal Bhutto, Bakhtawar, Aseefa, and Sherry Rehman, has come out in support of activists and on the issues highlighted in the rallies. The PPP has also come out against the banned organisations and their associates within political parties. The banned organisations are nothing but extensions of those religious parties that propagate sectarianism on one side and tacitly encourage violence against minorities and women on the other. Unless the government and the state spell out an active opposition to the use of religion in politics and take immediate and stern action to curb hate speech and threats of violence, the situation is likely to worsen.
Two more recent examples are the murder of a college professor by his student in the name of religion and the continuing forced conversions of Hindu girls in Sindh. The teacher simply wanted to arrange a party with students but the murderer considered it un-Islamic. This is the result of a religious mindset that our state has been crystallising through textbooks and media. A prolonged emphasis on religious identity and differences has produced a bigoted and blighted young generation. The time for the state to change its tack is now.
For over seven decades the state has maligned and targeted enlightened, liberal, progressive, and secular-minded activists and intellectuals, politicians and workers; now is the time to recognize past mistakes and correct them, before it is too late.
The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.