Marching in circles

February 27, 2022

Details of Aurat Azadi March plans in Islamabad remain under wraps

Marching in circles

The Fatima Jinnah Park is Islamabad’s largest recreational spot, with walkways, play areas, greenery and clean air. According to the official Twitter account of Aurat Azadi March Islamabad, on Mach 8 the park will host its first public gathering dedicated to the rights of women.

A public gathering at the park is not a new idea. The city administration had offered the same venue to Maulana Fazalur Rehman and Maulana Tahirul Qadri for holding their public meetings instead of the Srinagar Highway or D Chowk.

“Aurat March is not a new phenomenon in Islamabad either. It has been in the media for the last three or four years for all the wrong reasons,” says Shabana Arif, a gender expert who has worked with national and international institutions. “Since my twenties, I have been taking part in this march here. Now I am 50.”

“In the beginning there was only a few of us. We used to carry torches to our rally that was usually held at D Chowk. Since we were a small group, people ignored us by and large. The critics wrote us off calling us a ‘bunch of elite women’,” she recalls.

“But then young girls and women started joining us. All of a sudden, our ranks swelled in Islamabad. This angered some segments of the society, especially the Lal Masjid clerics and their followers,” she says.

Over the last few years, she says, Aurat March has been regularly threatened and occasionally

Sharafat Ali, a lawyer engaged in drafting laws for parliamentary bodies related to gender and training judicial officers, sees this as an administrative failure.

He points out that the city administration attached a lot of qualifications to the NOCs that it gave to Aurat March last year and the year before that. Though those requirements were the subject of a lot of criticism, he says the bottom line is that those marches were lawful.

Despite that, he says, they were attacked by mobs that managed to come close.

“Can somebody be held accountable for allowing the violent mobs to gather?” he asks.

A number of Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam Fazl (JUI-F) leaders were part of a group that attacked Aurat Azadi March in front of the National Press Club a couple of years ago. Some officers of the Islamabad administration shared stage with the JUI-F leaders despite the fact that an NOC had not been issued for the gathering.

The attack was foiled by the police. However, there was chaos following the assault and no one to guide the participants of the march.

The Aurat Azadi March in Islamabad has faced problems due to an ambivalent approach of the city administration on one hand and lack of clarity on the part of event organisers on the other.

Details of the plans for the rally remain under wraps this year too. TNS spoke to a few of the regular participants of the march but there was little clarity about the event. Ismat Shahjehan, one of the organisers in the past, told TNS that she could not “volunteer” any information at this stage.

Dr Farzana Bari, an organiser of the march this year, told TNS that the event at the Fatima Jinnah Park has been cancelled. She said the women will march from National Press Club to D Chowk, the traditional route of the march. She says the organisers have yet to receive an NOC from the city government, but added that things were in process. She says the administration has been cooperating with them so far.

Courtesy: Aurat Azadi March Islamabad.
Courtesy: Aurat Azadi March Islamabad.

Islamabad Deputy Commissioner Muhammad Hamza Shafqaat too has preferred silence on questions about arrangements for Aurat March.

On the other hand, the JUI-F Islamabad chapter chief Abdul Majeed Hazarvi has been very vocal. He has already stated that his group will use “baton” to stop the march of “obscenity”, if needed.

Shabana Arif says that they had not objected to Jamaat-i-Islami holding one of the biggest women’s gatherings in Karachi. “But some elements do not hesitate to resort to violence against us and our gatherings.”

As a venue for Aurat March, Fatima Jinnah Park has its advantages as well as some disadvantages. Its plus point is that the police can easily protect the gathering by restricting entry to the park for non-participants.

The disadvantage is that the participants are protected only inside the walls. They will be exposed to the same danger the moment they step out.

* The Aurat Azadi Jalsa, originally scheduled for March 8, has been rescheduled for March 6 at the F9 Park, Islamabad.

The writer teaches development support media at the International Islamic University Islamabad. He tweets at @HassanShehzadZ

Marching in circles