Demonstrators belonging to Islamist groups attacked an International Women's Day rally in the Pakistani capital Islamabad on Sunday, hurling rocks, chunks of mud and even their shoes. The demonstrators, who were at a rival rally held by hardline Islamist organizations, were particularly enraged by one slogan the women's day rally adopted: "mera jism, mera marzi" – "my body, my choice."
Riot police set up large cloth barricades to dive the rival rallies, which flanked either side of a main road. But the police were also there to protect the women's day protesters, after the hardline men and women threatened violence.
As the protest was winding down, dozens of men tried to push through the barricade, including a man who held a little girl aloft on his shoulders. According to a video uploaded to Twitter by a BBC reporter, police used batons to push them back. Still, for the next few minutes, they hurled projectiles that scattered the women's day protesters, as journalists huddled behind concrete road dividers.
The hardline groups, their surrogates and conservative talking heads, took to the airwaves preceding the rally to condemn Pakistani feminists, accusing them of encouraging anti-Islamic vulgarity by raising a slogan that hinted that a woman had the right to do as she pleased.
The tensions even boiled over on a live talk show, where a screen writer swore at a prominent Pakistani liberal after she interrupted him by chanting the slogan. "Nobody would even spit on your body," he shouted in a clip widely shared on social media.
Conservative lawyers petitioned the courts in Pakistan's three cities to try ban the women's marches. One prominent Islamist opposition leader, known as Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman, threatened protesters on Feb. 29, warning them not to chant "my body, my choice." "God willing, we will also come out into the streets, and we will destroy you," he warned. And a senior teacher at Jamiat Hafsa, a hardline women's seminary in the Pakistani capital, told NPR her students would halt the march by organizing a rival "modesty march."
"This is a march to stop that march," said the woman, who uses the name Bint Azwa (the women at the seminary often use first names or fake names to avoid being identified by security institutions that monitor their activities). "We are not going to let those women march the streets of our country, our neighborhood, with those vulgar chants."
The violence underscored how hardline Islamist groups played upon conservative outrage over the slogan "my body, my choice," to assert their presence in the Pakistani capital – and demonstrate their muscle.
The opposition leader Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman has struggled to find a toehold in Pakistan's freewheeling politics since his party was forced into opposition. The hardline Jamiat Hafsa was violently shut down in 2007, after a standoff that killed more than 100 people. The women returned to the seminary only this February, and have dared security forces to remove them again.
On Sunday, dozens of the seminary women turned up at the counter-rally, clad in long black robes, headscarves and face veils, segregated from dozens of men who stood in a nearby park. They stood in military-style rows, their fearsome appearance only jarred by blue, green and pink bows pinned to their shoulders, to identify which bus they should return on, explained one 25-year-old, who only gave her first name, Rubina.
"We don't want women to make choices for their bodies. The choice rests with God," she said. Nodding toward the women's day march, she described the women there as "naked." "These people don't even wear dupatas," she exclaimed, referring to the shawl that Pakistani women traditionally drape across their chests to signify modesty.
On the other side, at the women's march, hundreds of men, women and transgender Pakistanis clustered. Some waved the red flag of a leftist party. Others held up signs, including "my body, my choice," but they denounced so-called "honor" killings, where men murder their female relatives for bringing alleged shame onto the family. Some demanded to know the fate of female political activists who mysteriously disappeared.
"Pakistan is getting more and more divided over time," said Ambreen Gilani, a 41-year-old development consultant, gesturing to the Islamists across the road. The opposition to the women's march helped motivate another protester to turn up, Sukaina Kazmi, a chemical engineer. She gestured to her Muslim headscarf, "Our religion does not teach us any of the things they are standing up against, our religion actually does fight for women's rights," she said.
As the protesters regrouped and walked away from the dozens of men trying to assault them, one organizer, Anam Rathor, said the violence underscored why they were demonstrating. "This proves our point, and this movement is growing. And now we will have more people. The reason why they are throwing stones is because they are afraid of us and that makes us happy."