A suspect silence

February 27, 2022

The general silence of mainstream political parties with regard to a proposal to ban Aurat March could mean tacit approval or fear of radical Islamists

A suspect silence

The mainstream political parties have largely ignored threats by some ‘religious’ groups and a proposal by a federal minister to stop Aurat March, a popular activity that has for some years been a regular feature of the International Women’s Day celebrations and observances in the country.

Noorul Haq Qadri, the federal minister for religious affairs, was recently reported to have written to Prime Minister Imran Khan to ban Aurat March; create a Hijab Day and facilitate its observance. While individual leaders from several parties have condemned the initiative in no uncertain terms, mainstream political parties have not come out with a ringing rejection and support for the activists.

Aurat March started in 2018 in Karachi as a part of activities marking the International Women’s Day on March 8. Participation by independent activists, in particular the innovative ways chosen by some of the participants to highlight the problems faced by women resulted in larger numbers of girls and women joining it every year. Daring slogans against patriarchy added to its appeal so that it came to overshadow other events on the day and replicated in other major cities. For these and other reasons Aurat March has also attracted criticism, opposition and hostility.

Minister Qadri has reportedly urged the prime minister, accused by some of right-wing leanings, to ban Aurat March across the country as some of the participants have been raising slogans and carrying placards and banners “against Islamic teachings”. The minister has requested that March 8 be observed as Hijab Day. The occasion, he has proposed, should be used to call on the international community to take notice of India’s treatment of its Muslim minority and protect their religious freedom. The day, he says, could also be used to express solidarity with Muslim women across the world who struggle to maintain their religious freedom including the right to wear hijab. Regular observance of the International Hijab Day, he says, would also help draw global attention to the maltreatment of Muslim women in India and in Indian-held Kashmir.

The News on Sunday approached spokespersons for Pakistan Peoples Party and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz for their comments on this development. Comment was declined. However, individual leaders from the mainstream parties, including some from the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) have condemned the move.

Sherry Rehman, the Pakistan Peoples Party’s parliamentary leader in the Senate has warned that banning the march will bring Pakistan a bad name. She has said that the International Women’s Day aims at raising awareness in the society against gender stereotyping and prejudices against women. “You are conspiring to deprive women of their freedom and rights on the International Women’s Day,” she has said.

Federal Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry has since said that governments do not have the right to police people’s views or clothing. Bans, he says, should only be placed to prevent likely violence. He has suggested that the government should not become a party in what somebody chooses to wear.

“If governments start making these decisions, there will be soon anarchy like we are seeing in India,” he has said. He has also noted that some of the placards objected to in the past were found in the investigation to have been photoshopped.

Some of the ‘religious’ parties have taken a hard stance against Aurat March. A few days ago, the Islamabad chapter president of Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI-F) threatened physical violence in case the government did not ban it. “We will use batons to stop it,” he was reported to have told a rally at D Chowk, the place where Aurat March participants gather. “We cannot allow the spreading of obscenity in the name of women’s rights,” he had said.

Following allegations of blasphemy last year, Peshawar police had registered a case against organisers of the Aurat March in Islamabad on court orders. Petitions were also filed in the Islamabad and Lahore High Courts asking for a ban on the march. However, these petitions were dismissed, with the courts ruling that the right to peaceful assembly was guaranteed in the constitution. In 2019, students from the Jamia Hafsa seminary in Islamabad had taken down the tent set up for Aurat March and hurled stones at the participants.

The writer is a staff reporter. He can be reached at vaqargillani@gmail.com. He tweets at @waqargillani

A suspect silence