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Last Updated: Friday, 27 May 2005, 23:55 GMT 00:55 UK
Head to head: Pakistan's mixed-sex row

Should women and men be allowed to take part in mixed sports events? Pakistan is again witnessing confrontations and violence in the city of Lahore over a mixed-sex race. Last May participants defied a ban imposed on mixed-sex races. The BBC News website invited two leading figures on either side of the debate to argue their case.


Every religion, race and society has its own traditions, norms and culture. Pakistan, being an Islamic republic, adheres to a certain set of practices that are in accordance with such norms.

Hafiz Hussain Ahmed
We have an elite in our country which is totally Westernised and thinks that it must emulate the West in every respect

For example, in our 57 years as an independent country, we have always had segregation in our society because that is what the people want. That is the first reality about Pakistan that one must always keep in mind.

Now we come to Islam. Our religion was the first in the world to award equal rights to men and women. But the context in which such equality must be exercised is often misunderstood or deliberately confused.

Islam gives women equal rights to acquire education and to engage in extra-curricular activities.

But there is no precedence in Islamic history that allows us to let men and women study together or engage in extra-curricular activities together.

That is why the MMA government in [Pakistan's] North-West Frontier Province has made special arrangements for girls to acquire education or engage in sports without having to mix with the boys.

This was done not because we, the MMA, wanted it. It was done because it was unanimous demand of the people who voted for us in the last elections.

And I fail to understand why it is such a big issue for the West, which always acts according to its own religion, traditions and culture.

For example, they [the West] have made such a fuss about letting a woman be the Imam [prayer leader]. I ask you, when Pope John Paul died, why wasn't he replaced with a woman? It cannot be, because their religious traditions will never allow it.

But we have an elite in our country which is totally Westernised and thinks that it must emulate the West in every respect. They are the kind of people who would not even notice the nuns in their long flowing robes but would create havoc if they see Pakistan women in the hijab [traditional Muslim dress covering part of the face].

We are extremely wary of this elite because of its agenda. Most of these people are funded from abroad and blindly follow the diktat of those who fund them.

For example, these are the people who resisted Pakistan's nuclear programme, led protests against our nuclear tests and they waste no opportunity in turning our Islamic values into an issue.

I ask them: Are there no bigger issues in Pakistan than holding a race in which boys and girls can run together, in brief clothes that are totally against our culture and values?

In their blind love for everything that is Western, they have even forgotten that the West claims to stand for democracy. In Pakistan, a majority of the people are against such races because they do not want to see their daughters running side by side with boys in shorts.

But if a majority of Pakistanis don't want such races, is it democratic to insist that such events must be held?

I ask these people to adjust to the realities of Pakistan, the country where they are living. Our realities are very different from those of the West.

We also want peace, but a peace that is rooted in our own religious and cultural traditions. Blind emulation of the West can never bring peace, only conflict.


A mixed gender race should not have been an issue. It became one after a race was interrupted through violence and coercion.

Right activist Asma Jehangir and other runners in Lahore 21 May
In many ways, the mixed-sex race issue was the last straw... Crimes against women have increased

The government's response to that disruption was a step backwards and a somersault from their agenda of enlightened moderation.

The people who disrupted that race and perpetrated violence were released that very evening.

But the women who had showed up to participate in the event were told that they could not take part in public races again. That became government policy.

The question then is an important one: Is the government going to protect the violators of human rights? Is the government, at the behest of such people, to undermine the right of women to take part in sports?

If that is the case, then today it is sports, tomorrow it can be something else.

I agree that there are many other issues and I hope that others also take some responsibility in solving such issues.

For example, not just our government but all dictators in the world say that poverty is the basic or the major issue and so people should not talk about political rights.

It is not the people or the civil society that alleviate poverty. If there is poverty then a government should ask itself why is there so much poverty in the country.

To us, the issue of violence against women is very critical, especially when it is protected by government.

The government says women's rights are only of an interest to a minority and President Musharraf himself has said that the wishes of the conservative majority should be accommodated.

Well, the first thing is that the president needs to learn some democratic norms. And the first one is that you cannot have majoritarian oppressive rule.

There are certain fundamental rights of the people that have to be respected even if such people are in a minority. For example, the rights of women, the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of sex.

Secondly, it was the president himself who said recently that he believed that 90% of the Pakistanis were moderate Muslims. Why is it that he now suddenly feels that moderation does not include mixed races?

It is not the duty of the government to determine to what extent women can take part in national life - what is decent and what is indecent.

In many ways, the mixed-sex race issue was the last straw. The government committed itself to a women's commission. It gave an undertaking that its recommendations would be implemented. They committed themselves to making effective laws against honour killings.

But they have backtracked on all these issues.

Meanwhile, crimes against women have increased.

It is true that crimes do take place in all societies but the issue in Pakistan is that not even 1% of the perpetrators are brought to justice.

The most worrying aspect of this is that the government has played a part in covering up crimes against women.

The rape of a doctor in Balochistan province in January is illustrative of that.

It was the president who came on television and said that he guaranteed that the person who was being accused was innocent.

Now, he may be innocent. But what baffles me is how the president came to the conclusion that the accused was innocent without any investigation having taken place.

That is what is truly worrying. It is not for the government to cover up. But not only do they cover up, the entire system that we have in place has become dysfunctional.

There is no justice and naturally, the women who are more vulnerable and do not have access to the mechanisms of the state are worse affected.

Your comments:

The Koran in verse 2:256 clearly states that there is no compulsion in religion. So I have serious issues with the Mullah concept of an Islamic state where Koranic recommendations on lifestyle and dressing are enforced as law, or in this case by violent action. That clearly contradicts the no compulsion directive. The fact is that the Koran paints the picture of a society that provides exceptional rights to individuals to live life as they choose, beholden to no one except God on the last day. The Mullahs are way out of line in assuming religious authority when none was delegated to them in the book they claim to follow.
Athar, Kuwait

It is indeed shocking to read comments in this article from Pakistanis living abroad who sit outside the country and pretend to be moral judges for Pakistan. May I ask what part of Islam forbids women and men from taking part in a running competition? I applaud the efforts of Ms Jehangir who it seems almost single-handedly take on the government on gender discrimination issues. I fail to understand on what basis these mullahs/priests the world over (irrespective of religion) pretend to be custodians of culture. It's the ever evolving common citizen who defines the ethos of any culture, not a rigid set of so-called 'definitives'.
Vikram, Chicago, USA

When the majority represses the minority that is not democracy. Mr Ahmed cannot use the appeal to democracy to dismiss the clear violations of rights and due process. Our religion insists that we treat men and women equally, and it also insists that we protect the weak. This should be the case in accepting the protection of the minority. If there are those who do not wish to take part in mixed races, than who makes them? If there are those who wish to take part, we should not stop them, they are hurting anyone.
Azan Aziz, UK

I fail to understate that instead of solving the real problems of 145 million Pakistanis the leaders are moving towards non-issues. What role a marathon can play in raising the standard of living of a suppressed Pakistani. We should contribute in education, health and provision of justice to the common man in Pakistan. Mere making the score to show oneself as a most Maulvi or most modern is not the solution to problems of Pakistan.
Muhammad Hanif, Islamabad, Pakistan

Well said Mr Hafiz. The clear comparison he has given with respect to the misconception of Islamic beliefs is true to every word. Why do Human Rights Activists like Ms Asma always concentrate on liberating the Muslim woman, why not a Jewish or Hindu woman? The current Muslim woman is more than satisfied to follow the enlightened path of true Islam, not because of any oppression but by her own free will because true Islam gives her all those rights which are denied by other faiths. This is somewhat hard to digest for those activists who forcefully want to free her. The stark contrast given by Mr Hafiz regarding the nun and hijab, female pope and female imam brings home to us the fact that every Islamic teaching is considered extreme and oppressive, whereas extreme faith is accepted as normal in other religions. How come the Jews with their longs beards and hats are not termed extremist as are Muslims with beards and prayer caps? The mixed-sex race is just another failing attempt by Ms Asma to prove that Islam is oppressive towards women and people should become more modernised Muslims!
Qurat-ul-ain Qaiser, UK

Ms Asma, being a Muslim you must admit that Islam is a system that solves all the issues of our life whether personal, social or what ever walk of life it is. So, being a Muslim, what ever issue we face, we must find its solution in Islam and not use our limited knowledge. So, does Islam allow mixed gatherings? No. So there must not be any question on any issue. Mixed gatherings should not be allowed at all.
Noman Islam, Karachi, Pakistan

Very well said, Mr Ahmed. It is true that people all around the world, not just in Pakistan are blindly emulating the West. Please question the ideals on both sides Ms Jehangir.
Reza Rizvi, Canada

Both Mr Ahmed and Ms Jehangir make valid points. Yes there is a westernised elite in Pakistan who would probably feel more at home in the UK than in the average household in their own country. These people should have a say but not be allowed to dictate the norm for Pakistanis who may be moderate but are also conservative. However while Islam gives women many rights, what have the Islamic parties (MMA) ever done for Pakistani women? Every time a village council punishes a woman unjustly, condones rape or allows honour killings, the only people I hear standing up for these abused women are Ms Jehangir and her westernised elite.
Wasif, UK

We need to respect both points of view. I believe that if the MMA would like to have a conservative agenda, then we have to respect that. However, if the so-called elite also wish to have programmes that do not require segregation, then the MMA has to respect and tolerate that as well. If the majority of Pakistanis do not support such activities, they will cease to be popular in time. Otherwise, we will see an increase in such events, and personally I think that is what the MMA is afraid of. Let both sides be tolerant of each other's views.
Mohammed Raza, Pakistan

This is a never ending story in Pakistan. Religion has been exploited. Although we apparently are a Muslim country, none of our actions depict this. This mixed race debate, like so many others, serves just to keep Pakistanis preoccupied with nonsensical issues. If we really want to excel we have to liberate our nation, especially women.
Awais Babri, Pakistan

I am disgusted at the comments of Hafiz Hussain Ahmed. Islam was not the first to give women and men equal rights, it was not the first because it never has given rights to women. The first example of equal rights for men and women comes from Hinduism. In ancient Vedic times, women were teachers, as well as community leaders, and in the voting system of the villages, women had the vote.
Shiv, England

I think this issue is blown out of proportion. If they don't want women to run then why should they? And why the big uproar? We should adapt to all that Islam tells us.
Wajid Khan, England

The concern of both parties is that women should be able to exercise some basic rights. Unfortunately, in a set up like Pakistan, which has regularly pandered to the religious right, such rights cannot be guaranteed. I don't think the country will long survive with such skewed ideologies.
Ateeq Ahmad, USA

I don't understand what the point of the whole mixed gender race was. How much has it helped the women in Pakistan? I think all this was done only to get attention by doing something controversial. But the thing is if they really want to improve the conditions of women, go find them and help them.
Zafeerah, USA

I have lived in Pakistan for most of my life and honestly speaking, I have never understood what Ms Jehangir means when she talks about human rights. If becoming more westernised is her concept of having human rights, then most Pakistanis, including me, would completely disagree with her. Every democratic society should be allowed to set up its own norms based on its cultural, traditional and religious values. I do not believe that having a mixed marathon with women wearing shorts is a matter of human rights in Pakistan. There are more pressing social issues, as rightly pointed out by Ms Jehangir, which needs to be addressed.
Yassar, United Kingdom

The government haven't forced anyone to take part in the mixed sex race. People are taking part by their own free will, then why are the Mullahs creating an issue from a non issue?
Bijjar Baloch, Pakistan

Hafiz Hussain Ahmed, well said about the West's stance on "democracy". The West is indeed challenged to abide by their espoused principles of pluralism and right to self-determination with respect to the aspirations of Muslim societies.
Nayeefa Chowdhury, Australia

Extending Asma's arguments of today it's sports, tomorrow it will be something else. You are right Asma, tomorrow you will ask for something else, something more in the name of human rights. What better rights could anybody give us other than Islam. And Islam does not allow the gender-mix gatherings. We should earnestly stick to the blessed guidelines of Islam. If you look at it from a broader prospective, Muslims need a leader who could lead them under the divine guidance. That's the only guarantee for their survival from their chaos and misery.
Sheikh Wadood, Canada

Whenever religion is used to govern a nation it becomes corrupted. Religion should be a personal issue and not used to impose ones thoughts on people who don't agree with you, even though they may be a minority. History has taught us, like in the instance of Galileo, where the church was against his thoughts. And the church sought its own benefit by dubious means. And in the present age Islam is corrupted by people who proclaim they defend it. Every religion has served its purpose, and it's time it is left as a personal issue.
Ismail, India

I was born and raised in Pakistan and now living in USA and have observed the difference in both the cultures. Mr Hafiz's point vs Ms Asma is pretty clear. I don't get it, either Ms Asma is trying to work for women's rights or just against government policies? She refers to the president's claim that 90% of Pakistanis are moderate and I believe myself one of them, but do I want my sisters to run in public wearing shorts? Never. Question is why? Because it's against my religion and culture. If 1% of people like Ms Asma want to arrange activities like these, they can do so in places where other people are not affected. Even in the USA, if someone wants to conduct the same activities as in Las Vegas in a small town like Illinois, people will resist it and will never let you affect their social setup. So why is it becoming such a big deal, if the same thing happens in Pakistan?
Usman Zia, USA

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