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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 April, 2005, 13:29 GMT 14:29 UK
Pakistan's Islamists focus on women

By Aamer Ahmed Khan
BBC News, Karachi

Women protest on International Women's Day
Women demanding greater rights

Pakistan's hard-line Islamist political parties have spent months in protest campaigns against President Pervez Musharraf. But recently they have changed tack, concentrating on women's issues.

Last week the six-party religious alliance that constitutes one-fifth of the country's parliament, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) introduced a bill in parliament seeking a complete ban on women in advertising.

The move follows the MMA's recent successes in stopping women from participating in outdoor sports.

Political observers in Pakistan are intrigued by the sudden shift of emphasis in the MMA's politics.

Islamists in Pakistan are opposed to Gen Musharraf's alliance with the United States and accuse him of subverting the nation's Islamic identity.

But they now seem to be placing a greater emphasis on an agenda of cultural orthodoxy.


The shift was first noticed when the MMA started to oppose women's participation in sports events open to the general public.

Qazi Hussain addressing a rally
The MMA is campaigning against General Musharraf's government

A mini-marathon organised in Gujranwala, some 40 miles north of the Punjab capital city of Lahore, was disrupted by MMA workers armed with batons and led by an MNA Qazi Hameedullah.

Several people were injured, including the MNA, in clashes with the police and the organisers had to abandon the race.

A subsequent race scheduled for Sargodha - the home of Pakistan's air force some 150km southwest of capital Islamabad - was shifted to within the boundary walls of a college.

Describing the shift in the race's venue as another victory - the government had earlier conceded to the MMA's demand that passports should again state the holder's religion - MMA leaders vowed not to let "the immoral government of Gen Musharraf tamper with the nation's Islamic credentials".


Soon after, a private member's bill titled the "Prohibition of Indecent Advertisements Bill 2005" was submitted to the national assembly.

MMA activist
Religious parties want an end to Pakistan's alliance with the US

The proposed law seeks that making or publishing "indecent" advertisements be declared a criminal and non-bailable offence. It proposes one-year imprisonment for any ad agency that uses women models - and at least five years for those found in repeated violation of this law.

The word "indecent" includes everything that is against religion, eastern values and traditions, and promotes licentiousness.

Pakistan analysts say that the shift reflects a steady erosion of the MMA's political agenda.

The alliance tried and failed to persuade President Musharraf to stand down as head of the army last year.

It also failed to stop the government's aggressive campaign against local and foreign Islamic militants in which hundreds have been arrested and dozens killed over the last three years.

The MMA's string of failures was capped on 7 April by their inability to stop the first bus service across divided Kashmir in more than 50 years.

The Islamists believe that the bus service is part of a process that will see the disputed divide of Kashmir become, in time, the accepted border, with most of the state recognised as part of India.

Where the MMA have failed with political issues, they have succeeded on issues such as the religion column and women's participation in public life
Nighat Said Khan

For them, the bus service can cause irreparable harm to Kashmiris' freedom struggle.

"The MMA hardly have any politics left," says Nighat Said Khan, the head of the Institute of Women Studies at Lahore.

Running a left wing women's organization for over 20 years, Ms Khan has often found herself at loggerheads with the Islamists.

"But where they have failed with political issues, they have succeeded on issues such as the religion column and women's participation in public life.

"That may be why they are reverting to a cultural agenda where they have had far more success compared to the political front," she says.

Despite his avowed policy of turning Pakistan into a modern, enlightened Islamic democracy, Gen Musharraf's government has so far made no headway in dealing with discriminatory religious legislation such as the so-called Islamic penal provisions introduced by Gen Ziaul Haq back in the 1980s.

For example, the president vowed to repeal Pakistan's controversial blasphemy laws soon after he came to power. But following a brief and intense campaign by hardline Islamists, he backtracked.

The crisis in the MMA's politics has been further fuelled by reports of on-going negotiations between the government and Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).

Any deal between the two would eliminate the government's dependence on the MMA's parliamentary strength.

Under such circumstances, it appears that all that the MMA can do is to try and protect existing laws that women and minority groups denounce as discriminatory, while forcing more orthodox Islamic legislation through.

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