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Pakistan's Feminists Fight Blasphemy Cases

Pakistani Women Battle Blasphemy Charges After Rally
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Pakistani Women Battle Blasphemy Charges After Rally

Pakistani feminists say they are determined to fight blasphemy charges filed in mid-April by militant Islamic groups opposed to their International Women's Day rallies held on March 8.

They rejected as "totally false" blasphemy allegations based on the social media postings of their rallies.

"We've seen a weaponization of blasphemy increase," said Farieha Aziz of the Karachi-based Women's Action Forum. "There's a pattern since 2017 of using it against dissidents in particular."

Until recently, Aziz said, social dissidents were labeled "anti-state" and "anti-Islamic," with the blasphemy charges taking opposition to a whole new level.

Right-wing position

Nasir Minhas, an activist and lawyer with the far-right political party Tehrik-i-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), told VOA he would pursue his blasphemy petition in the High Court of Islamabad after it was rejected by a lower court.

"These women had raised objectionable slogans which were anti-Pakistan and anti-Islam, and they held banners which symbolically insulted the Prophet of Islam," Minhas said.

FILE - Activists of the Aurat March carry placards as they march during a rally to mark International Women's Day in Lahore, March 8, 2021.
FILE - Activists of the Aurat March carry placards as they march during a rally to mark International Women's Day in Lahore, March 8, 2021.

Pakistan's laws carry the death penalty for those charged with blasphemy, and some of the accused have been killed even before their cases reached court.

Aziz said the allegations have had a "chilling effect."

"There are those who continue to speak up, and will," she said, adding the charges have organizers concerned about the impact on the women's movement.

Government's position

Bilalwal Bhutto Zardari, Pakistan People's Party chairman and opposition leader, opposed the "misuse" of the blasphemy charge, and the PPP has stopped police from registering cases against women.

But Firdous Naqvi, a parliamentarian from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) ruling party, told VOA his party cannot support the women for raising "Westernized slogans" such as "My body. My choice."

"Islam clearly lays down the guidelines for women's dress and their code of conduct," he said.

In videos posted on social media, some women are wearing jeans and several others are without the dupatta, a traditional loose cloth covering.

One young female organizer, who requested anonymity for her safety, said she believes Pakistani women's "consciousness" has progressed more than the state.

"Younger women who have studied abroad and have access to social media know how different our lives are in Pakistan compared to women across the world," she said.

'Doctored videos'

Rally organizers said their slogans were misinterpreted and their videos were doctored to force them into silence.

They claim when they shouted "mullahs" (Islamic clerics), the sound was doctored to sound like "Allah." And "Fazlo" (Islamic party chief Fazlur-Rehman) was altered to sound like "Rasool" (prophet).

Latif Afridi, president of the Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan whose legal team is working to quash the blasphemy cases in the Peshawar High Court, called the manipulation of social media content a "very dangerous trend."

"If today they use the videos against educated women, tomorrow they will use it against political workers. It makes us wonder where this country is headed," he told VOA.

Thousands had viewed women's rallies on Facebook and Twitter, after which the doctored videos appeared. As the two sides traded barbs, Pakistan's Ministry for Religious Affairs said it would probe the matter.

PTI lawmaker Naqvi said the videos would not be used in investigations but "in some instances, the women appear to have crossed the line."

"Their cases will be sent to the Islamic Shariat Court, where we should wait to see (the) results," he said.

Civil society participation

The left-leaning Women's Freedom March in Islamabad, with its inclusion of young, grassroots female activists, is the primary focus of the Peshawar investigations, organizers say.

After the Islamabad rally, Islamabad's Red Mosque petitioned the high court to ban such rallies in the future for their "un-Islamic" and "unconstitutional" nature.

FILE - Activists of the Aurat March celebrate as they gather during a rally to mark International Women's Day in Karachi, March 8, 2021.
FILE - Activists of the Aurat March celebrate as they gather during a rally to mark International Women's Day in Karachi, March 8, 2021.

Ismat Shahjehan, a socialist feminist with the Women Democratic Front, is among the organizers accused of blasphemy by the Red Mosque's Shuhada Foundation.

She told VOA the group's demand for the rights of Baloch and Sindhis reverberated nationwide and triggered the blasphemy cases.

Defense analyst Brig Tipu Sultan rejected charges that the state used accusations of blasphemy to crush social dissent.

"It (the charge) is something that is yellow journalism. It is something that represents intellectual corruption, nothing more," he told VOA.

He claimed the West is using the blasphemy law against Pakistan.

Last week, the PTI government said it would not compromise on its blasphemy law, even if it hurts its trade options.

It was responding to the European Parliament's citing of an "alarming" increase of abuse in Pakistan's blasphemy law, followed by a resolution to revoke the country's preferential trade status.

'Intimidation tactics'

Organizers say their rallies have inspired women to speak on formerly taboo subjects such as sexuality and violence.

"The women's march is a very large and growing movement that was held in 17 cities this year," said Arfana Mallah, a Sindh University professor.

The Jamiat-i-Ulema and Sunni Tehrik targeted her last year after her tweet in the Sindhi language criticized the blasphemy law as a "colonial-era decree used to target opponents."

Mounting death threats forced her to temporarily flee the country, retract her statement and apologize in a YouTube video.

The TLP, now the third-largest political party in the Punjab, said such women are "Western funded," who do not represent the mainstream.

"Religious parties' interpretation of Islam revolves around women's bodies and now, seeing women rise up. They're using blasphemy laws as a tactic to frighten them," Mallah said.