WHAT happened in Gwadar earlier this week was surprising for everyone in the country. Hundreds of women participated in the rally ‘Give Rights to Gwadar’, led by Maulana Hidayat-ur-Rehman of the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI). Never before have Baloch women come out in such huge numbers for any public movement or political party, anywhere in Balochistan. True, Baloch women have been at the forefront of the struggle for the recovery of Baloch missing persons since the last 10 years. But this was the first time that so many women stepped out of their homes to protest against the lack of basic necessities, including water and electricity in Gwadar, and to demand a ban on illegal trawling and the easing of the border trade with Iran.
Listening to the women addressing the crowd, one would not have been able to tell that they were out for the first time. They were eloquent, articulate and enraged about the problems that Gwadar residents are facing. They all knew who to address and what to ask for. Their voice did not shake even once, nor were they afraid to call out the Balochistan chief minister or Gwadar’s representatives in the national and provincial assemblies. A young girl spoke in English in an effort to convey her demands to Gwadar representative Senator Kahuda Babar in Islamabad, thinking that he might understand her better in English in case he had forgotten Balochi.
They were eloquent, articulate and enraged.
The women’s anger towards senators, MNAs, MPAs and the chief minister is legitimate. In the process of bringing in big development projects and mega infrastructure, as well as building cricket stadiums, the basic needs of Gwadar’s people have been ignored. Since the inception of CPEC, Gwadar has been in the limelight. The dream of the centre and the provincial government is to make Gwadar a future Singapore or Dubai. Unfortunately, as the maulana said, crystal meth is more readily available in this future Singapore than a Panadol in its hospitals.
Gwadar residents are sick of the government’s fake promises of development, changed lives and better facilities. Fishermen are no longer allowed to fish freely. Illegal foreign trawlers are parked at three points in the sea: Haft-Talar in Pasni, Jazeera in Ormara and Kalmat between Pasni and Ormara. They see these trawlers catching fish, and even fish eggs, with better nets than their own. Besides endangering marine life, it threatens their centuries-old source of livelihood. But the government hasn’t done enough to remove their apprehensions. Finally, they have found a voice for themselves in the form of the JI maulana who himself comes from a fishing family and understands the woes of the fisherfolk.
Maulana Hidayat-ur-Rehman has made his protest inclusive by mobilising all ordinary people — men, women and children — across Makran Division. There seems to be vast support for the protest sit-in and a large crowd has gathered on Marine Drive since Nov 15. He understands the economic and social threat to the people of Gwadar well. That’s why he had also organised a rally where protesters dressed in shrouds to highlight that it is a matter of life and death for the people. A children’s rally further emphasised how everyone is affected by the unemployment crisis due to illegal trawling and the token system at the Pakistan-Iran border. The women’s rally was well organised, and enough space was given to the speakers on stage to air their grievances.
Women singing Habib Jalib’s Dastoor, and raising slogans against the current government and officials for harassing people at security check posts displayed enormous courage. Nobody could tell from their powerful speeches that they live within four walls, and had never been to a protest before. Not only did they know all the slogans that are raised in protests in urban Pakistan, they were also keen to not give up on their fundamental rights. Boldly, they challenged the provincial government on its recent black law banning protests on Balochistan’s highways. Rather than listening to the pressing demands of Gwadar’s people, the government has come up with a ridiculous and unconstitutional order to suppress the voice of the most marginalised segments.
The ongoing protest comprises genuine basic demands which the government can fulfil if it cares enough about the population. The main ones are to curb illegal trawling, remove security check posts, ease restrictions on the border trade with Iran by ending the token system, and provide basic facilities such as water, electricity, health and education. I would say that for such rudimentary demands, the people of a city that is believed to be a potential game changer for the entire country shouldn’t have to protest for two consecutive weeks. Now that the whole of Gwadar, especially its women, are determined to get their basic rights via this sit-in, the government must act immediately to fulfil their wishes.
The writer is a research analyst at the World Bank and a Fulbright alumna.
Published in Dawn, December 5th, 2021