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As every year, this year too Pakistan’s women joined their sisters round the globe in rallying for their rights on March 8, International Women’s Day. For the last few years, the Day is commemorated through the Aurat March that, thanks to networking on social media and other means of mobilisation, has gone from strength to strength. This growing trend of women coming out for their rights has never sat well with the right-wing bigots in our society. To do down and silence the voice of our women, they are not above deliberate misstatement, distortion, disinformation, downright lies and what have you. But this year some of these worthies have outdone themselves.

Fake news, doctored videos and blatant lies are the weapons our right-wing zealots have employed to paint the Aurat March in colours such as being un-Islamic, trying to impose ‘western debauchery’, playing to western (Islamophobic) sentiments, etc. This list would be bad enough in any circumstances, but this year the ‘big gun’ of blasphemy accusation has also been trundled out on the basis of malicious lies, doctored videos, misstatements about an organisation’s flag, etc.

What is even more appalling is that some commentators, analysts and anchors in our mainstream media have joined the voices baying for the blood of the women allegedly responsible for these transgressions without bothering to ascertain the facts. Blasphemy charges are not to be trifled with. The charge carries the death penalty, the accused face threats to life and limb from vigilante mobs, and those targeted usually rot in jail for years. It is salutary to recall the unfortunate interview of the late Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer by a relatively new and inexperienced anchor on TV regarding his defence of and support to Aasia Bibi, a poor Christian woman falsely (as it turned out after years) accused of blasphemy. The interview and the anchor’s slant arguably fed into the religious frenzy that led to Salmaan Taseer’s assassination by his guard who was then revealed to be a follower of an extremist group. So much for media responsibility, then and now.

Federal Minister for Religious Affairs Pir Noorul Haq Qadri announced in Islamabad on March 14, 2021 that an inquiry was being conducted into the alleged blasphemous slogans raised at the Aurat March. The government, he said, was trying to ascertain the truth regarding some content/video clips circulating on social media, adding (even before the inquiry!) that those involved in this practice would be unmasked and cases filed against them. In the same breath, he also announced that those elements who ‘photo-shopped’ the banners of Aurat March and posted them on social media would also be taken to task. The minister would have been better and more credibly served had he confined himself to the inquiry announcement without venturing an opinion that smacks of a double-edged sword to be employed against both the Aurat March organisers and those who put out fake and doctored content to malign them.

As it is, nine leading activists of the Women’s Democratic Front Islamabad that has had an important organisational role in the Aurat March, have had applications moved to the capital’s administration and police to file FIRs against them based on the false and distorted content/videos put out maliciously by hostile elements. Fortunately, so far both the administration and police (unlike our Religious Minister) have thought it best to investigate the matter in the light of the by now widespread clarifications/refutations of the alleged misdemeanour.

Even if the false and cooked up charges against the organisers of the Aurat March do not come to much in the end, they have already succeeded in putting these women’s lives at risk. And judging by past experience, including the infamous case of Aasia Bibi, those guilty of motivated false accusations of blasphemy are likely to get away with their crime (sin, according to religious edicts) scot-free. This injustice needs redress by bringing such mischievous elements to book and allowing the full majesty of the law to punish them as they richly deserve. Unfortunately, our judiciary too (apart from the police and administration) has been found wanting in this respect. In the Aasia Bibi’s case, then Chief Justice of Pakistan Asif Khosa afforded rare ‘leniency’ to the false accusers, arguing under normal circumstances their punishment should have been life imprisonment but he was letting them go due to the ‘sensitivity’ of the case. Given such precedents, why should one be surprised at the scant respect enjoyed by the law or the courts’ judgements?

This year’s Aurat March’s Charter of Demands speaks to the health, education, freedom from violence (sexual and physical), and Covid-specific new demands on women’s home and care services. It reiterates the demand for ensuring under-age marriages are done away with. It argues for the human, health and other basic rights of the transgender community. This is the core focus of the Aurat March – defending and demanding the implementation of the rights enshrined in our statute books and Constitution. And yet the right-wing defenders of male domination and patriarchy are not above employing every dirty trick in the book, including lies, fraud and falsehood to put women struggling for their legitimate rights in the dock.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has issued a report that repeats the finding of its 2013 report that one in every three women in the world is subjected to violence. This extends to all ages, including tender age. The worst cases are in the home, putting our sacred mantra of ‘chaadar aur chaar diwari’ (body covering and four walls of the house) in true context. This domestic violence can be both sexual and physical. Our laws do not give much protection to women abused in the home. Covid has exacerbated these effects.

Women victims have a hard time at the hands of unsympathetic police, administration, and even the courts. This should not come as a surprise as patriarchal mindsets are to be found universally in our society, feeding into systemic bias against women victims who dare to defy the traditional norms of ‘not going too far’ (i.e. public with their complaints). Violence is merely the extreme manifestation of attitudes rooted in male domination and patriarchy.

Progressive and enlightened men, particularly the youth, have been turning out in support of the Aurat March and women generally. The growing success of the annual march however should not render women activists quiet the rest of the year. They need to continue and intensify their organisational efforts throughout the year. The future is always difficult to predict, but if the present trajectory of the women’s movement and Aurat March continues and attracts the support of wider circles (including enlightened men), it could be the harbinger of the greatest social revolution to hit Pakistan if not the Subcontinent in its long history.

(The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the newspaper)

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Copyright Business Recorder, 2021

Rashed Rahman

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