Muslim women’s struggle

12 Mar 2020

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I.A. Rehman
I.A. Rehman

LAST Sunday, on International Women’s Day, women from various sections of society marched for their rights and freedoms in all important cities of the country. The heavens did not fall but there is great disorder on earth. The controversies started by the misogynist lobby have forced Pakistani women, and Muslim women elsewhere in the world, into a new struggle.

But we must first take note of the fact that the city lords in Punjab chose to align themselves with the denigrators of the Aurat March. In Islamabad, they did not take action against those who were threatening to disrupt the women’s rally. These elements were trying to prevent peaceful citizens from doing something that was wholly legal and legitimate and every person granted the privilege of wearing a police uniform should have known that any such interference in citizens’ rights is a criminal offence. As a result of the police failure to proceed against the vigilante squad, the capital of the republic proved to be the only city where unarmed women were subjected to brickbats and a barrage of stones, and quite a few of them were injured.

The custodians of power in Lahore strove to prove that their city, known at one time as a leading centre of culture and liberal values, had become a stronghold of reaction. They succeeded beyond anyone’s calculations. Using their power to grant an NOC, they interpreted the Lahore High Court’s order in a one-sided manner to the disadvantage of Aurat March organisers. The conditions suggested by the courts are always supposed to be reasonable but the police viewed them as a licence to impose unwarranted restrictions on citizens’ fundamental right to assembly. Their decision to limit the procession route to a segment of Egerton Road was grossly unfair but the hard-pressed march organisers had no option except to surrender to such unreasonable diktat.

The Lahore city lords were even more niggardly while dealing with the Jamaat-i-Islami request for an NOC. In principle, the JI had every right to celebrate patriarchy and women’s subjugation by men. The participants were told to march from Gol Bagh to the district courts and from the north-western tip of Gol Bagh to the south-eastern corner of the district courts; the distance is perhaps less than 250 yards. That was a cruel joke.

Muslim women the world over and their allies among Muslim men continue to face a challenge from extremists.

The attempt by women-baiters to use a single slogan from last year’s march — ‘mera jism, meri marzi’ (my body, my control) — to damn any demand by women for their rights continues unabated. The critics of this slogan insist on interpreting it whimsically and don’t wish to understand what its authors mean, which is what is said in most of the articles of the Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, a treaty duly ratified by Pakistan. (It is not impossible that this and other international conventions may someday be struck down by our traditionalist edict factories.)

In any case, there can be hundreds of situations in which a woman may refuse to surrender her body — such as a kidnapper’s attempt to rape his victim and a woman’s bid to resist marital rape. Be that as it may, the slogan has been under discussion by the Aurat March leadership and they are quite capable of answering their critics, without compromising on women’s control over their body and reproductive functions.

However, the Aurat March participants have given clear indications that they are moving beyond personal interests and raising the banner of the community’s rights and freedoms. Even last Sunday, the slogans raised during the Aurat March included denunciation of bondage to the IMF, threats to life, liberty and security of all citizens, enforced disappearances, soaring inflation and lawlessness. They also called for an end to extra-legal killings, violence against the vulnerable members of society, and war-mongering. All these are demands for giving relief to the people, including male chauvinists.

Here was a moment to celebrate the maturity of the women’s movement and the fact that rural, peasant women were marching and singing along with and sometimes ahead of ‘the urban, Westernised women’. They had gone beyond the impugned slogan, which might survive only in the sick minds of small men who are afraid of women’s success in securing what has always been their due.

The theory that the misogynists’ hostility towards the women’s movement for freedom was not due to their assertion of control over their bodies, and that the slogan under reference was merely an excuse to repudiate the concept of gender equality, has been confirmed by police violence against women processionists in Istanbul and Algiers. The women of Turkey and Algeria were not raising slogans that have infuriated Pakistan’s anti-women lobby. The only significant problem that Pakistani women share these days with their Turkish and Algerian counterparts is the threat from extremist militants who want to impose a most inhumane version of belief on all Muslim countries of the world.

The ground reality is that Muslim women the world over and their allies among Muslim men of goodwill face a challenge from extremists, and at stake are all the rights and freedoms human beings have won after thousands of years of struggle. Although present-day Muslim scholars are less open to conversion than their predecessors 100 years ago were, who at least accepted those belonging to different schools of fiqh as Muslims, they must be told that they cannot turn the wheel of change backwards. And also that if they can block Muslim women’s progress here and there they have no right to do so and their victories will be illusory and short-lived.

For Pakistani women the immediate priority is to put on the government whatever pressure they can muster to persuade it to honour its commitment under the Sustainable Development Goals to achieve gender equality by 2030. That will be the route to women’s self-realisation in an environment of love, tolerance and peace.

Published in Dawn, March 12th, 2020