March Issue 2007

By | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 17 years ago

Are the fanatics winning the battle for the soul of Pakistan?

A wave of intolerance, coupled with violence, is sweeping across the country unchecked. After smashing TV sets, burning CDs and DVDs and attacking cable operators, the lunatic fringe, now beginning to appear dangerously mainstream, is making ridiculous demands: that barbers refrain from shaving, music shops refrain from selling music, men stop wearing trousers and shirts, and women discard fashionable burqas for shuttlecocks, or else be prepared to face tragic consequences.

Their zealotry knows no bounds. Earlier, they attacked a medical team that was giving polio vaccines to children in the Northern Areas and killed a doctor. However, the group that currenly faces the gravest danger from these extremists are women.

It’s open season on the women of Pakistan. A woman parliamentarian was attacked physically at a meeting in Karachi, and Punjab’s minister for social welfare was gunned down in Gujranwala in broad daylight. The growing visibility of women in the public sphere has obviously begun to rankle with the torchbearers of the chadar and chardivari. They have even begun to oppose female literacy. Girls’ schools and teachers in the Frontier and the Northern Areas are being targeted to force them to shut down.

The government does not seem to be unduly concerned. Except for issuing a few perfunctory statements, it has done little to assuage the fears of womenfolk. Unfortunately, several ‘stalwarts’ of the ruling clique are in cahoots with this group that is determined to keep women down and push them out of public spaces.

Still fresh in the memory is the manner in which the Women’s Protection Bill was butchered to accommodate the fundo lobby. But this lobby remains unimpressed. To them, even a minor amendment to a law with a view to providing some relief to the disadvantaged is viewed as sacrilege.

What version of Islam is this that condemns women to a life of suffering, that sanctions the closure of girls’ schools and even the murder of a parliamentarian on account of her gender?

The fanatic who killed Zille Huma called it jihad. Probably Qazi Hussain Ahmed and Maulana Fazlur Rehman, who head the country’s leading religious parties and wax eloquent on matters of political import, would take time out from their pressing political engagements to comment on this jihad currently being waged against women.

And while on the subject of women, the Karachi Press Club, the erstwhile bastion of press freedom, was consumed by a peculiar debate focusing on the choice of Chief Guest for its International Women’s Day Celebrations on March 8. Half the office-bearers were opposed to inviting and conferring life membership on Mukhtaran Mai. They saw this symbol of courage as an embarrassment — she had made a fortune out of her misfortune.

If setting up schools to impart education to the illiterate boys and girls of her village, Meerwala, with donor funding constitutes business, then she is guilty. Perhaps they would have preferred it if Mukhtaran Mai had vanished into the darkness of the night like other gang-rape victims before her.

Rehana Hakim is one of the core team of journalists that helped start Newsline. She has been the editor-in-chief since 1996.