Mocking Masks of Master Musharraf
Ali Dayan Hasan
June 16: 'Teach the bitch a lesson. Strip her in public."
As one of the police officers told me, these were the orders issued
by their bosses.
police beat the woman with batons in the full glare of the news
media, tore her shirt off and, though they failed to take off
her baggy trousers, certainly tried their best. The ritual public
humiliation over, she and others - some bloodied - were dragged
screaming and protesting to police vans and taken away to police
This didn't happen to some unknown student or impoverished villager.
This happened to Asma Jehangir, the United Nations special rapporteur
on freedom of religion and head of the Human Rights Commission
of Pakistan, the country's largest such non-governmental group.
The setting: a glitzy thoroughfare in Lahore's upmarket Gulberg
neighborhood. The crime: attempting to organize a symbolic mixed-gender
mini-marathon on May 14.
The stated aim of the marathon was to highlight violence against
women and to promote "enlightened moderation" - a reference
to President Pervez Musharraf's constant refrain describing the
Pakistani military's ostensible shift from state-sponsored Islamist
militancy and religious orthodoxy to something else (just what
it is not entirely clear).
Others arrested included Hina Jilani, the UN special rapporteur
on the situation of human rights defenders, and 40 others, this
writer included (an observer, not a runner). The police, faced
with embarrassing media coverage, released us a few hours later.
The marathon was organized by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan
and affiliated non-governmental organizations in the light of
recent "marathon politics" in Pakistan. Until early
April, it was government policy to encourage sporting events for
women, so Punjab Province organized a series of marathons in which
men and women could compete. The brief experiment ended abruptly
on April 3, when 900 activists of the Islamist alliance, the Muttahida
Majlis-e- Amal, or MMA - which was effectively created as a serious
political force by Musharraf and is backed by the military - attacked
the participants of a race in the town of Gujranwala.
According to a government statement at the time, the MMA activists
were armed with firearms, batons and Molotov cocktails. Yet within
days the activists were released without charge and Musharraf's
government had reversed its policy of allowing mixed-gender sporting
activities in public.
The public beating of Pakistan's most high-profile human rights
defenders highlights what most Pakistanis have known all along:
"Enlightened moderation" is a hoax perpetrated by Musharraf
for international consumption. What is known in Pakistan as the
"mullah-military alliance" remains deeply rooted, and
the Pakistani military and Musharraf continue to view "moderate"
and "liberal" forces in politics and society as their
The reason is simple: Democracy, human rights and meaningful civil
liberties are anathema to a hypermilitarized state. Pakistan's
voters consistently vote overwhelmingly for moderate, secular-oriented
parties and reject religious extremists, so the military must
rely on the most retrogressive elements in society to preserve
its hold on power. Jehangir and others were beaten because they
tried - in a symbolic but crucial way - to challenge the mullah-military
alliance on the streets of Lahore.
In Washington and London, Musharraf presents himself as the face
of enlightenment; in Pakistan there is another face. The Bush
administration, Musharraf's chief backer, should realize that
its friend in the war on terror came to power in a coup, continues
to hold office without facing Pakistani voters, refuses to schedule
a vote, and bans women from running in mixed-gender races. Those
who stand for the values of human rights and democracy that the
Bush administration calls universal are seen as the enemy within
and are beaten on the streets.
Instead of allying himself with espousers of hate and intolerance,
Musharraf should pursue a genuine path of enlightened moderation
by telling the MMA and others that the days of treating women
as second-class citizens are over. If human rights defenders can
be beaten for running for their rights, will they have to run
for their lives before the rest of the world and Musharraf's patrons
The writer is the Pakistan Representative of the New York-based
group, Human Rights Watch. He has been a senior journalist and
Assistant Editor of Monthly 'Herald' in Pakistan. This article
was published first in IHT.