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Dawn Editorial 2 March 2020

Marching for women’s rights

THE citadel of patriarchy is once again in turmoil.
Women demanding their rights are, by definition, a threat to male privilege in such a milieu. When they do so en masse, as planned on March 8 — International Women’s Day — it seemingly becomes an existential threat.
The reverberations from last year’s Aurat March have reinvigorated the self-appointed guardians of culture and morality into dusting off the usual ‘obscenity’ and ‘vulgarity’ tropes.
Maulana Fazlur Rehman has openly threatened participants in the upcoming event, exhorting his supporters to stop the march regardless of any “sacrifice” that might entail.
A few days ago, a petition was filed in the Lahore High Court asking for a permanent ban on the Aurat March for being an “anti-state” and “anti-Islamic” activity.
During its hearing on Thursday, the LHC chief justice rightly observed that “freedom of expression cannot be banned”.
The women’s rights movement in Pakistan has come a long way from the days of Gen Ziaul Haq’s misogynistic dictatorship, a time when rape victims who braved the courts but could not produce four male witnesses were often jailed for adultery.
Many incremental changes have come about since then in terms of legislation, awareness and victims’ support groups.
They are, in part, a product of wider exposure to contemporary social movements and of increasing female participation in the public sphere (ergo, their economic empowerment).
These factors threaten traditional notions of family and the society as a whole, where power emanates from men.
However, as every case of ‘honour’ killing, forced marriage, domestic violence, etc illustrates, the struggle for women’s rights in this country remains at its core about their fundamental, inalienable right to agency and autonomy.
The chauvinistic resistance to the upcoming march demonstrates that it is to be fought, not only in parliament and the courts of law, but in the minds of men, and the women who have internalised the patriarchal narrative.
For all these reasons, and to endorse the Aurat March as a legitimate platform for women to raise a collective voice for their rights, elected representatives from mainstream parties must themselves join the rally on March 8.
The event has become a lightning rod for regressive elements to obfuscate the very real issues that the event highlights and the legitimate demands it makes of government and society. Here the media can play a responsible role in keeping the focus on the larger picture, rather than sensationalising the minutiae.
Meanwhile, local administrations must provide all possible security to the participants.
No one should be allowed to create a hostile atmosphere, and incitement to violence such as that by the JUI-F leader must not go unnoticed lest it embolden others.
It is the democratic right of women to challenge gendered expectations in both the public and private spheres, and articulate them however they may choose to do so.


Government absence

SINCE taking up the position of adviser on finance to the prime minister, Hafeez Shaikh has not attended any of the meetings of either the Senate or the parliamentary standing committees on finance. This prolonged absence is seen by many parliamentarians as a sign of defiance. So serious is the concern among some elected officials, that the National Assembly Standing Committee on Finance has decided to defer debate on five key bills introduced by the government until the finance adviser makes a personal appearance to answer lawmakers’ questions. Separately, the Senate has asked him to share details of the agreement reached with the IMF after the second review. Some of those bills are essential for the IMF programme, and indefinitely shelving them could complicate programme implementation. The committee members have decided they will not consider voting on the bills until they have been given a briefing. The MNAs from the ruling party have also agreed. Regarding the demand for a briefing before the Senate, it is not yet known how Mr Shaikh will respond.
It is not hard to see the legislators’ point of view. If the government is asking parliament to pass a law, the least that is expected is a briefing to parliament about the law and the need for it. Beyond this, it is also essential to consider the reservations that might be expressed as the process advances. This is the basic building block of our democracy. Not coming to the house to answerg questions gives the impression that the government wants to treat parliament like a rubber stamp. It is unreasonable to expect parliament to vote on any bill or legislation without interaction with government ministers. At least one of the bills in question, for example, significantly expands the surveillance powers of the State Bank, which could be a requirement under the FATF action plan as well as the IMF programme. But it also has implications for citizen privacy and other areas that might be constitutionally protected. Likewise, if there are commitments in the IMF programme regarding policy matters in which the people have a stake, such as power tariffs or taxes, then parliament has a right to expect a clear briefing. Keeping parliament at arm’s length, especially in legislative matters, is no way for a democratic government to behave.


Literature festivals

ON Sunday evening, the Karachi Literature Festival wrapped up its assortment of panel discussions at the Beach Luxury Hotel, which seems to have become its permanent abode. The festival was the last in a series of literary events that peppered the winter 2020 calendar. It had been preceded by the Sindh Literature Festival, the Lahore Literary Festival, the Adab Festival and the Children’s Literature Festival. While KLF, that was launched over a decade ago, was the first event of its kind to be held in the country, other cities have followed in its footsteps — and sometimes have even outshone it when it has come to encouraging stimulating discussion or bringing in a star-studded guest list from home and abroad. Today, Islamabad, Quetta and Lahore can boast of having their own literary festivals that are open to all members of the public. In addition, there have also been several book fairs that have cropped up over the years, including a four-day book fair in Gwadar.
In stratified societies such as ours, these festivals are some of the few spaces that are open and accessible to all citizens and where discussions take place in various languages spoken in the country. Pakistani readers can rub shoulders with the giants of the literary world, asking questions or getting books autographed by their most beloved writers. They also get a chance to come face to face with those in the corridors of power, as many policymakers participate in the panel discussions, or even get entire panels dedicated to themselves. Consequently, one criticism that has been directed at such festivals is that they are increasingly becoming just another space for politics, rather than promoting a love for literature, language and the humanities. Despite the sometimes harsh criticism — which has ranged from being accused of acting as gatekeepers of the written word, to not including diverse or inclusive enough panel guests — an honest appraisal should be welcomed as an incentive to improve and innovate.


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