Protest held against attack on women marathoners in Pakistan

The Guardian

Islamabad, April 12:

Women protesting the “Talibanisation’’ of Pakistan demonstrated outside the parliament yesterday after a mob attacked female runners. The attack has spurred worries about the growing influence of Islamic extremists. A week ago baton-wielding men threw petrol bombs and torched vehicles at a mini-marathon in Gujranwala, 216 km south of Islamabad. The race — one of the first to allow female participation — ended with police firing tear gas and making over 50 arrests. The threat of further violence forced cancellation of other mini-marathons in a direct challenge to Musharraf’s policy of “enlightened moderation”. “This has got to stop,” said protester Aisha Shaukat. “These mullahs want us to just stay home and have children.’’ A placard behind her read: “The obscenity is in your mind.”

Others handed out leaflets saying: “We the citizens condemn this Talibanisation.” Columnists and critics have made comparisons between the social agenda of Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), an alliance of Islamic political parties spearheading the rise of religious right in Pakistan, and the Taliban. The Gujranwala race was attacked by MMA supporters. Since gaining control of the provincial government in North West Frontier Province two years ago, MMA has banned music and dancing in public, torn down advertising billboards featuring women, and introduced gender segregation in college campuses. Recently they shifted their conservative crusade to the relatively liberal Punjab province. “Marathons are not objectionable — as long as menfolk and womenfolk run separately,” said Syed Munawar Hassan, a senior MMA leader.

Musharraf’s government has resisted its campaign. In February a court dismissed an attempt by religious leaders to get a ban on Basant, Lahore’s carnival of kite-flying and parties. But the mullahs have scored victories, most significantly forcing the government to reverse its decision to eliminate a column indicating religious belief from the national passport. Then last weekend a women’s mini-marathon took place in Punjab — in a walled government compound. The men’s race took place outside.

“It is a battle of ideas and the fundamentalists are winning,” said Talat Masood, a retired army officer and political analyst. “They can get away with anything. The government has no spine.” Zilla Huma, a woman parliamentarian who ran in Gujranwala race, said the mob had been bussed in. “Locals condemned their actions.’’ Punjab province will host another 29 mini-marathons said provincial sports minister Naeemullah Kahn Shahani yesterday. But women will have to run separately from men and off the main road. The Islamists’ fury is thought to have been sparked by a marathon in Lahore last December in which men and women ran together for the first time. “They think we run in knickers and shorts and tracksuits. said Mrs Huma. “But we wear traditional dress — shalwar kameez and dupatta.” Musharraf has toured the country preaching “enlightened moderation”, but critics say his speeches are just a sop to western opinion. “We know what enlightened moderation should be,’’ said Shaukat . “When MMA flings petrol bombs, throw them in the slammer, not us.”