IN October 1991, I went to the Rawalpindi Bar Association to cover an event for my newspaper, The Muslim. As a young reporter at my first job, it was a very exciting event for me because the chief guest was Benazir Bhutto. Earlier in the day, I had argued with my editor A.B.S. Jaffery to let me cover this event. “You always allow the male reporter to cover political events but give me boring assignments. Let me go to this one at least. She is a woman politician,” I protested. My editor smiled and said, OK you can go this time, and told a senior photographer to accompany me. All the way from our rundown newspaper office in Aabpara to the crowded Rawalpindi courts, I could not contain my excitement. I wrote about 10 questions that I was going to ask Benazir Bhutto and planned how I would take many pictures with her.
The meeting hall was already full when we arrived. Full of men. The experienced photographer led me to the front of the room where two rows were marked ‘For Ladies’. A little later, a wave of excitement rippled through one side of the room. I got up in anticipation and looked. And there she was! The most elegant woman I had ever seen in my life, tall and beaming with confidence. She sat in the middle chair on the stage. I just kept looking at her and forgot to take notes.
‘Don’t ever leave your space during a protest.’
The host then began the meeting but in the middle of his welcome address loud voices started coming from the back of the room. The voices turned into angry shouting and a loud commotion took over the room. I got up in panic and was about to run when my eyes met Benazir Bhutto’s. “Don’t leave your seat,” she said loudly from the stage. “Keep sitting,” she said firmly, looking at me. I sat down immediately. Still looking at her, I held the hands of two women, as young as me, on each side. They held my hands even harder.
While sitting I turned my head back slightly and could not believe what I saw. Lawyers in black jackets throwing chairs at each other and shouting all kinds of swearwords. What’s going on? I asked. A lawyer Baber Awan is saying that Benazir Bhutto is not a member of the bar so she cannot speak here, was the reply. I started looking at Benazir Bhutto again. She was sitting with her head held high and looking at the events playing out in front of her with a poker face.
A little later, the noise died down. The event started and Benazir Bhutto spoke at the end. I listened to her in awe and admiration and kept on clapping after her speech even when everyone had stopped. As she was stepping down from the stage to leave, I suddenly remembered I had to do an exclusive interview with her. I ran to her but her security ladies stopped me from getting close to her. She suddenly stopped, turned to me, bent her head as if she was going to whisper something and said, “don’t ever leave your space during a protest”. Before I could say a word, she was out of the room.
Her brief whisper has stayed with me all these years. I left journalism a few years later and have worked in women rights organisations in many countries. I have attended hundreds of protests in 30 years. Every time there was trouble at a protest, I remembered Benazir’s words “Don’t ever leave your space”.
For the last few days, I have been watching the budget debate taking place in parliament. I can sum it up in one word. Disgusting. While watching, I kept on thinking, how it would look different if the parliamentarians had stayed in their seats and protested. The government side could shout from their seats and the opposition from theirs. It would have been more civilised if they had not thrown the budget books but even if they had simply remained seated and shouted their lungs out, the optics of all that would have been much more peaceful than what we saw on TV. The youth that makes up 60 per cent of Pakistan’s 220 million population would have learnt what is a peaceful way to protest.
For years, I have seen many donors give large amounts of funds for ‘training of parliamentarians’ in Pakistan. I suggest one more topic for such training: ‘How to protest peacefully as a parliamentarian’. A session on the history of global protests would show that the most successful agitations were peaceful in nature. From the March on Washington by Martin Luther King Jr to the hunger strikes of Nelson Mandela and the most recent inspiring protests of Greta Thunberg’s school strikes for climate, one thing is clear. The moral voice of peaceful protest is much louder than the angry shouts of irresponsible political leaders who leave their space to disrespect the very office they have gained with the sacred vote of their citizens.
The writer is president of PODA, a women’s rights organisation and a former journalist.
Published in Dawn, July 23rd, 2021