WHAT would have been Peshawar’s first women bicycle rally, slated for Saturday, was indefinitely postponed by its organisers — who had billed it as a “progressive and peaceful” event — following threats of protest by local religious groups and the JUI-F and JI, who claimed it would promote “vulgarity and obscenity”.
To add insult to injury, according to media reports, despite the organisers having obtained permission from the district administration, the police claimed ignorance of the event — with one JUI-F spokesperson stating that the authorities had, in fact, endorsed their views.
The KP directorate general of sports, moreover, inserted itself into the administrative imbroglio to offer its own clarification — not in support of the women-led sports event but to distance itself from it.
That the PTI-led KP government would capitulate to such pressure is particularly galling given the fact that a notable feature of the party’s rallies and sit-ins in opposition was its high female turnout, a presence the PTI defended against incidents of harassment and misogynistic remarks by its opponents.
Pakistani women, having borne the brunt of marginalisation under Ziaul Haq’s Islamisation drive, have made many strides to reclaim their right to city spaces. There have been multiple women-organised events in recent years to demonstrate the possibilities of an inclusive urban experience in which women (including transgender women) can access public spaces free of the fear of harassment and violence.
Besides meetings and marches, a much-needed feature in our urban centres has been that of women-led sporting events such as bicycle rallies.
The last Punjab government, too, supported this drive for increased women’s visibility — a staple of female empowerment — through an initiative to get women driving motorcycles and scooters.
This was a far cry from 2005, when activists (including the late Asma Jahangir) were baton charged and taken into custody by police in Lahore for attempting to stage a mini-marathon to highlight arbitrary curbs of women’s rights by religious parties — a charge proved true by their strong-arm tactics against similar marathons at the time.
The positive image of women, in small but increasing numbers, being able to navigate and celebrate in public spaces — of a country that rejects and defies regressive forces — cannot be underestimated.
Simply put, the KP government should have shown, if not outright alliance with their female constituents, then at least some spine. Local authorities can still rectify this, provided that they emphatically throw their weight behind the women bicycle rally.
Published in Dawn, January 21st, 2019