What about women?

OF LATE, the police and religious extremists in Pakistan have been preoccupied with running women. Not women running away, but just engaging in harmless running.Just last week, the awesome might of the Punjab police was unleashed on a group of women who were audacious enough to attempt to run from Lahore’s Gaddafi Stadium to the nearby Kalma Chowk. Many were roughed up, their clothes torn, and dragged off to jail.

By Irfan Husain

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Published: Thu 26 May 2005, 10:08 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 3:21 PM

While there has been some criticism of these bully-boy tactics by MMA clerics in the National Assembly, there is little doubt where the responsibility ultimately lies. A few weeks ago, women running a marathon race in Gujranwalla were attacked by bearded, lathi-bearing zealots led by an MMA Member of Parliament.

This current spurt of violence against women is in line with the agenda the hardliners have been pursuing for years. Aping the stone-age outlook of the Taleban next door in Afghanistan, some of our clerics claim religious sanction to justify their aggressive, often violent behaviour against women.

In far too many Muslim countries, a woman’s lot is not an enviable one. Often basing their mistreatment of the opposite sex on archaic tribal codes and ancient social custom, rather than a learned and liberal interpretation of the Holy Quran, men have controlled the destiny of women for centuries.

Until the Middle Ages, this was the norm in most of the world, rather than a Muslim exception. But gradually, attitudes have changed, and women’s rights are now firmly established in all democratic societies. Indeed, a country can hardly claim to be democratic while denying equal rights to half the population. Of course, progress has often been uneven, and even today, there are gender related disparities. But few question the fundamental principle of equality between the sexes.

Even in Pakistan, the rights of women are guaranteed by the constitution. But the reality is very different. Barely a day passes without lurid newspaper reports of rapes and other crimes against women. We are not unique in this, but in other countries, action is immediately taken against the criminals. Pakistan is unusual in that here, perpetrators are usually protected by society in the form of landlords, mullahs, members of parliament and other local worthies.

And not just are the criminals sheltered from reluctant law-enforcement agencies, the victims are often prevented by their own families and supposed well-wishers from filing a case and pursuing the matter. We read about the most awful crimes, and if there is some international pressure, the highest in the land order an enquiry. But almost inevitably, this is where the matter rests.

It is this official apathy, which encourages men to continue taking advantage of the weakest segment of our society. Even when the President and the Supreme Court step in to right a grave and glaring wrong, there is very little action ever taken. And as long as there is no deterrence, women will remain at risk.

Unfortunately, these brutal realities have largely come to define Islam in the eyes of the West. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali woman member of Dutch parliament, is under constant police guard because of the many death threats she has received from Muslim extremists. Her crime? She has vigorously questioned the position of Muslim women in their societies, thereby raising hackles among her co-religionists in Holland and beyond.

As a child, Ms Ali was forced to undergo the hideous female circumcision. While there is nothing remotely Islamic about this barbaric ritual, it continues to be practised in parts of Africa. Later, she fled to Holland to escape an arranged marriage, and there she began to ask uncomfortable questions about the rights of Muslim women.

As a member of parliament, she was asked to prepare a report on immigrants. According to the Guardian daily, which recently interviewed her, she found that "(Muslim society) is unable to endure criticism or change, and is essentially at odds with European values..." Incidentally, Time magazine has recently selected her as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

The risk to her life increased after the murder of Theo Van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker, allegedly at the hands of an extremist. In fact, the film Submission, showing the plight of four Muslim women, was co-written by her, and was the direct cause for Van Gogh’s public killing.

Another Muslim woman who has taken a controversial position is Irshad Manji in her book, The Trouble with Islam Today. A Canadian of Ugandan origin, Ms Manji argues that too many Muslims around the world have taken to following a dogmatic, literal interpretation of Islam, and calls for reform based on ‘ijtihad’, or re-interpretation of the holy texts.

A visit to her website (intriguingly named www.muslimrefusenik.com) gives the details of the ‘Project Ijtihad’ she has launched to generate a debate and discussion on the subject. Not surprisingly, she has received her share of death threats, and been dubbed a ‘Mossad agent’. Apparently, this is the standard, knee-jerk reaction of extremists not intellectually equipped to enter into a debate.

In Pakistan, activist and lawyer Asma Jehangir has had to face threats, abuse and physical violence over the years she has battled for equal rights for women and the minorities. Against the odds, she and a handful of brave men and women have fought the forces of oppression represented by an ignorant and hostile clergy and an indifferent state.

One would have expected General Musharraf to actively support their cause with his slogan of "enlightened moderation". Unfortunately, these have proved to be empty words. Time after time, he has placed short-term expedience before the long-term interests of the country.

Despite his brave words to reform the country’s madrassas, nothing has been done despite the passage of three years. In fact, at the recent madrassa convention, speaker after speaker said no government attempt to change the curricula in these seminaries would be tolerated. Some lauded the role of the madrassas in ‘protecting the religious frontiers of Pakistan.’ This should allow us to sleep more easily.

But perhaps more distressing than the fiery but predictable speeches made by the clerics was the unqualified praise heaped on the role of the madrassas by Chaudhary Shujaat Hussain, the president of the ruling Muslim League who was present at the proceedings. He went on to deny that any of the madrassas were involved in terrorist activities. With support like this, it is no wonder Musharraf’s ‘enlightened moderation’ has remained just a slogan.

Irfan Husain is an eminent Pakistani commentator based in London

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