THE mob has been primed to act in self-righteous fury, and unless the state responds appropriately, the unthinkable could happen. Using a doctored video as part of a malicious disinformation campaign, hatred of the most visceral kind has been deliberately stoked against organisers of the Aurat March, which was held on March 8 — International Women’s Day — in several cities in Pakistan.

Shamefully, a number of journalists and political commentators — among them some habitual offenders — fuelled the controversy. Accusations of blasphemy are being levelled, often a chilling precursor to religiously inspired violence in this country. Sure enough, right-wing groups held angry demonstrations on Friday threatening vigilante action. Even the banned TTP purportedly issued a statement to that effect.

The Aurat March organisers have issued a strong rebuttal of the claims made in the disinformation campaign. They shared the original version of the video clip that was falsely captioned in an attempt to show the participants raising objectionable slogans, and explained that a banner being portrayed as offensive was the personal account of a child sexual abuse victim. It was also clarified that the flag seen at the march was not that of France — a lie being perpetuated to paint the event as being ‘un-Islamic’ and promoting a ‘foreign-funded agenda’ — but that of the feminist movement that is the main force behind the event.

The organisers also demanded an apology from those who, by design, have incited hatred on manufactured grounds in order to vilify the feminist movement and silence it. Needless to say, no apology has thus far been forthcoming.

In one sense, the venom being spewed against the Aurat March was expected; it has been so every year since the event became the centrepiece of International Women’s Day celebrations in Pakistan. But this time around, the campaign has been particularly vicious and for obvious reasons, potentially more deadly. Allegations of blasphemy are akin to painting a target on the backs of the individuals in the cross hairs.

What has been set in motion by reactionary elements demands an intervention from the state, which has been claiming credit for cracking down on religious extremism in recent years. Instead of being a silent spectator, the government must act immediately to denounce the threats and punish the hatemongers.

Meanwhile, the new generation of rights activists by now know well the malevolent forces arrayed against them. These elements have no qualms using any tactic, howsoever despicable, to discredit the struggle for equality, dignity and security from gender-based violence.

Looking ahead, rights activists should build upon the momentum created by their determination and courage. They would also do well to take some cues from the activism of the feisty women who preceded them — those that earned their spurs during Gen Zia’s dictatorship, and knew that resistance does not preclude engaging with the state.

Published in Dawn, March 14th, 2021

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