Marching amidst violence

March 15, 2020

Aurat March was attacked in Islamabad by JUI-F marchers. The city administration has been slow to act

“Different groups of seminarians had been building up an atmosphere of terror in the federal capital but city administration remained unmoved until March 8 when the groups attacked peaceful citizens,” Ismat Shahjehan, one of the organisers of the Aurat Azadi March (AAM) in Islamabad, tells The News on Sunday. She says that the attack on participants of the march took place without any provocation.

“No, it was not sudden. It was deliberate and well thought-through. Members of a proscribed outfit and the Jamia Hafsa vigilante force had defaced our mural long before the march but no action was taken against them. Announcements were made from several mosques provoking people to violence against us,” she says.

Ismat Shahjehan says that when they applied for an NOC, the city administration did not grant it until the Islamabad High Court gave a verdict in their favour. She also says that the NOC had a lot of qualifications.

Farzana Bari, another organizer of the event recalls that young people mounted the truck when the attack took place. Bari is founder of the Department of Gender Studies at Quaid-e-Azam University and has been active on several national and international platforms for women empowerment.

“I was not on the truck at that time. But rocks were thrown at all of us. A girl standing close to me got bruised on her arm. All of us ran for cover,” she says.

“We have been keeping record of the injured and have shared the data with the city administration. So far, 10 people have reported being injured,” she adds. The data shared with TNS has also been made part of a report compiled by the Women Action Forum.

She says that the fault lies with the city administration. “How is it possible that opponents of the AAM managed to set up a stage, lay chairs and arrange vehicles? They did not have permission for a parallel event,” she says.

“We did not issue a No Objection Certificate (NOC) to anyone other than WDF,” says Muhammad Hamza Shafqaat, the deputy commissioner of Islamabad. “We had to arrange a separate place for male and female participants of JUI-F’s march, failing which they would have all been at the AAM venue,” he says.

“We did our best to make sure that these groups do not come to the venue at the same time. The religious and political-religious groups had to conclude their event by 1.00pm. Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) followed the schedule. But the JUI-F, the Sunni Ittehad Council and the Jamia Hafsa people did not,” he says.

Hasnain, a university student who attended the Aurat Azadi March, says that some clerics had started chanting slogans criticizing the AAM as they approached. He says Women Democratic Front (WDF) leaders Asmat Shahjehan, Tooba Syed and others were on the truck, making speeches.

“All of a sudden, they (Jamia Hafsa people) breached the tent separating them from us and pelted us with stones. Everybody ran for shelter. But then police baton-charged the attackers and pushed them back. We took a sigh of relief,” he says.

Later the AAM participants too shouted some slogans and the situation became chaotic, he recalls.

Fauzia Yazdani, an expert in governance and gender with a background in working with several governments and UN bodies on this theme, says it was encouraging to see that 3,000 to 4,000 people turned up for the AAM. “The crowd was unprecedented in Islamabad. A good thing was the large number of male participants,” she said.

“The organizers did their utmost not to provoke the fanatics who were stationed across the road. One of the speakers had wanted to chant the slogan ‘mera jism meri marzi’, but was persuaded not to do so. There were explicit placards,” she says.

“The charter of demands was read out. It focused on rule of law, accountability, access to public spaces, participation of women in politics etc. It was very energetic yet organized. But when the time came to proceed, the Jamia Hafsa vigilante force started pelting us with stones and shoes,” she says.

“The police panicked. We had to take cover behind the truck. We saw many people who were hurt. Ambulances could not come in as the road was blocked with barriers,” says Yazdani, adding that volunteers took some of an injured to the ambulance at F-6 Markaz for treatment. She says the marchers should a good deal of courage and made their mark.

Dr Fatemeh Kamali-Chirani, a visiting research fellow at Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) who works on culture and diversity, says, “A movement is something that nobody can snatch from their (women’s) hands by force. If anyone tries to suppress them, they will show their resistance in every field of life…they will show their talent as doctors, journalists, teachers or family members.”

Bari says that they had teams for crowd management in place. When the attack came, she says, these teams led the AAM participants to safety and made sure that nobody retaliated.

Shafqaat says his team had visited the JUI-F side at 3.00pm and told them that they had to leave. A few minutes later, the attack took place. He says the administration made sure that the damage was contained. “The situation was brought under control in less than a minute. We have lodged an FIR against the attackers and some of them have been identified,” he says.

Shahjehan says while on FIR has been lodged, it is not adequate or accurate. The Women Action Forum has also expressed the same apprehension. She also points out that some of the clerics have issued a warning that they will launch street protest if the FIR against them is not withdrawn.

The author tweets @furraat

The authorities’ slow reaction to attack on Aurat March in Islamabad by JUI-F