Pakistani Women's Day marchers hit with stones, sticks

Zain Zaman Janjua
1 / 5

Pakistani riot police in Islamabad separate activists from the Aurat (Women) March (L) and a rival rally organised by Islamists (R, on the other side of a flimsy barrier) -- rocks were hurled against the Aurat group

Pakistani riot police in Islamabad separate activists from the Aurat (Women) March (L) and a rival rally organised by Islamists (R, on the other side of a flimsy barrier) -- rocks were hurled against the Aurat group (AFP Photo/Aamir QURESHI)

Protesters marking International Women's Day in ultra-conservative Pakistan on Sunday came under attack with stones and sticks, reflecting the movement's challenge in a society where females are still put to death under ancient "honour" codes.

During a march in the capital, Islamist counter-protesters hurled sticks and stones at the women's rights demonstrators, causing some injuries and forcing a crowd of people to seek cover before the police intervened.

Tension had risen in Islamabad when about 1,000 women and men gathered to call for greater reproductive and other rights. They carried signs including "Be a Man Support Women", and "Let's Work For a Day Where Women Walking in the Streets Feel Safe".

The march ended at a park alongside a separate "anti-feminist" Islamist rally, where women's faces were veiled and one large sign read: "We Claim That Only Islam Gives Rights to Women".

The duelling protests were separated by a line of police and a flimsy barrier.

Amnesty South Asia called on Pakistani authorities to hold accountable those who attacked the women's rights marchers.

"The horrific attack on the #AuratMarch, which includes stones being hurled at peaceful protesters, represents the very violence women are protesting against today", Amnesty tweeted.

Pakistan's Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari, also in a tweet, said "local Administration is taking actions against those who attacked the peaceful protesters with stones, sticks etc violating the law".

This year's tensions follow last year's second annual Women's Day "Aurat (Women) march", which sparked a backlash including rape and death threats.

In a society where women have been shot, stabbed, stoned, set alight and strangled for damaging a family's "honour", marchers have been accused of promoting Western, liberal values and disrespecting religious and cultural sensitivities.

"The women in Pakistan are considered property by their male counterparts," said Tahira Maryum, 55. "There is nothing vulgar in asking for your rights."

At the Islamist counter-protest, dozens of women in burqas held their own placards including one saying "Anti-Feminist", while shouting, "Our bodies, Allah's choice".

AFP saw several men throwing sticks and stones at the women's march.

Ismat Khan, a 33-year-old woman, said women's rights activists were "naive" and being exploited by non-governmental groups and "the Jewish lobby".

"We are free and to live our lives are according to Sharia," she told AFP.

In Lahore, several hundred women and men took to the streets chanting slogans including: "Give me what's mine" and "We want freedom", while more than 1,000 people gathered at a park in the southern port city of Karachi, chanting slogans, beating drums and singing.

"We are not scared of mullahs (religious leaders). Let them be jealous of us," said Anis Haroon, a veteran women's right activist in Karachi.

- 1,000 killings annually -

The nationwide "Aurat march," from the Urdu word for women, also saw a group of women gather in the southern city of Sukkur near the Indus river. The waterway is where the bodies of women who have been slain in "honour" killings are sometimes dumped.

This year, anti-march campaigners filed unsuccessful court petitions to try to ban Sunday's events, and a religious political party warned it would stop the march at "all costs".

Much of Pakistani society operates under a strict code of "honour", systemising the oppression of women in matters such as the right to choose whom to marry, reproductive rights and even the right to an education.

According to estimates, at least 1,000 women fall victim to honour killings in Pakistan each year.

Rights activists have long fought against the patriarchal notion of "honour".

In neighbouring Afghanistan, frequently rated one of the world's worst places to be a woman, a handful of people took to the streets to mark Women's Day.

University graduate Tahmina Ghoori said that while urban Afghan women have seen some progress since the end of Taliban rule in 2001, they still face many challenges due to "gender inequality and the misogynistic views in our society".

She was especially worried about the possibility of the insurgents returning to power on the back of a US-Taliban deal signed last month.