Races turn into fight for Pakistani women's rights

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The Independent Online

A mini-marathon in the Pakistani city of Lahore at the weekend has become the unlikely touchstone for a battle between liberals and Islamic conservatives over women's rights. A similar race scheduled to take place a week ago was broken up by police who arrested and allegedly beat several competitors. Women competitors said female police officers swore at them, beat them and tore their clothes.

A mini-marathon in the Pakistani city of Lahore at the weekend has become the unlikely touchstone for a battle between liberals and Islamic conservatives over women's rights. A similar race scheduled to take place a week ago was broken up by police who arrested and allegedly beat several competitors. Women competitors said female police officers swore at them, beat them and tore their clothes.

Islamic conservatives have focused on the marathons as part of a campaign to enforce cultural orthodoxy in Pakistan. Radical religious groups are demanding that men and women be prevented from racing together. As female runners continue to take to the streets, the Saturday races appear to be becoming a battleground in the struggle for and against women's rights.

In April, a mini-marathon in Gujranwala was attacked by religious hardliners armed with batons and led by a Pakistani MP, Qazi Hameedullah. Saturday's race went ahead despite the mayor of Lahore, Mian Amir, announcing a ban on mixed-sex races.

Many women in Saturday's race ran not in shorts and trainers but traditional salwar kameez - a long, loose shirt and baggy trousers - and high heels. That was after hardliners had focused on women running in "revealing" sportswear as a reason to ban the race.

"In our culture, no parent would like to see their daughter running on the roads along with the boys and that, too, in shorts," said Hafiz Hussain Ahmed, the deputy leader of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, (MMA) Pakistan's main conservative Islamic party, which has been behind most of the protests.

On Saturday, despite the ban, police protected the runners from religious hardliners, instead of arresting runners. The marathon was a success for Asma Jehangir, the chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, whose determination to hold the event in the face of opposition turned it into a cause célèbre. She said: "The authorities realised violence and heavy-handedness are counterproductive. It was a symbolic marathon to make the point that this tyranny had to be broken."

The attempts to have the mixed-sex races banned are the most visible part of a campaign by Islamists to enforce cultural orthodoxy in Pakistan, particularly where women are concerned. The MMA recently introduced a Bill to ban women from appearing in advertisements. Making or publishing an "indecent" advertisement will be a crime, with indecency including anything against the Muslim religion or traditional cultural values. Anyone making an ad using a woman model will be jailed for a year - five years for repeat offenders. The MMA also recently succeeded in forcing Pakistanis to list their religion in passports - something religious minorities fear will expose them to persecution.

The new campaign is a radical departure for the MMA, which until recently concentrated its efforts on opposing President Pervez Musharraf's support for the US against al-Qa'ida and Taliban remnants in Pakistan. He has been forced into an unlikely alliance with the MMA because he has so little support among liberal parties. But some analysts say the party's campaign has come about because it sees the writing on the wall for its cosy arrangement with the President, who has been making overtures to his liberal opponents of late.

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