Wither Justice For 18 Women?

Khadija Shah is one of 18 women detained in connection to the events of May 9. For a country that claims to protect the honor of women, these crude tactics targeting innocent women, mothers and wives, are unbefitting.

Wither Justice For 18 Women?

“It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong”Voltaire

The tragedy of Karbala in 61AH did not have so much to do with ascension to power, but a most brutal and vindictive attempt to silence voices of truth and dissent. While Imam Hussain AS was practicing and preaching his ideology in Medina, sitting on his throne in Damascus, Yazid had full control over his realm, then why did he need to be so aggressive towards someone and his family who showed no interest in taking over his kingdom? Such is the fear in the minds of authority that the slightest utterance of a word which fleetingly smells of opposition or has the ability to cause tremors within the corridors of power, is responded to by a sledge hammer. 

Nobody likes to be criticized no matter how wrong and while many may smilingly but grudgingly ignore unpleasing comments, when it comes to the mighty, the word ‘tolerance’ disappears from their vocabulary. Bertrand Russell, in his famous book “Why Men Fight” aptly writes: “Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth—more than ruin, even more than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible, thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried-wisdom-of the ages… Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man.”

Why, for the last many months, have 18 women been detained as claimed by Khadija Shah (one of the detainees) in an open letter in a daily newspaper?

In just a few words, the brilliant twentieth century philosopher has summed up the actual ingredients of that fear which compel authorities to crush an intellectual in a way that instills terror in potential thinkers forcing them to surrender any defiant ideas on the altar of prospective shame, humiliation and physical/mental torture. Terry Pratchett writes: “Fear is a strange soil. It grows obedience like corn, which grow in straight lines to make weeding easier. But sometimes it grows the potatoes of defiance, which flourish underground.” These potatoes are the ones that give some, restless nights of anxiety.

Is it not ironic that the constitutions of many countries allow their citizens freedom of expression, but come down with heavy hands when someone raises a question that belies their wrongdoings? Freedom which comes in shackles of absurd regulations can hardly be termed as freedom. A speech, a piece of art, a book, an idea, a debate, or even a whisper, like small matchsticks appear to the mighty capable of igniting an inferno of defiance, is subjected to elimination by religiously following the adage “nip the ‘evil’ in the bud” except that ‘evil’ here has a relative meaning. If being outspoken or protesting in silence is an evil act then what is the act of imprisoning the weak and helpless?

Without any doubt, May 9, 2023 was a day when peaceful demonstrations became violent with attacks on army installations and Jinnah House, resident of the Corps Commander, Lahore, after arrest of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf leader, who along with his close companions is alleged to have provoked party supporters into ransacking and burning these places. In the aftermath, hundreds of men and women got arrested, so much so that even the unconnected ones who were within the geo-fencing range were not spared. The crackdown displayed how competent our law enforcers become when they put their minds to it, otherwise they appear helpless before genuine criminals. Although videos of the Jinnah House pillage shows mostly men busy in destroying it, but a number of women were also taken into custody. Some were released after a few months while some are still languishing in the prison.

Why did the nation's honor fall asleep the day Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s sister, Fatima Jinnah was murdered in her house in Karachi but Jinnah House, a concrete palace’s ‘sacrilege’ became an unforgivable crime? What a lopsided approach to preserving sanctity of ‘holiness’!

Peaceful protest is a constitutional right of the citizens that includes women. Anything that disturbs or hurts their feelings is good enough reason for standing up to express their dislike. A few among the protestors were women from varied backgrounds and ages. There were professionals, housewives and even breadwinners of their families with no criminal history yet they were arrested on different charges (true or false) of causing disruption and chaos and many are still in custody awaiting trial. Our justice system is unique. Murderers get away scot free while the helpless are held for long periods of time, to be eventually declared innocent. These are not women from the political elite who become absconders after being convicted but are treated like VIPs on their return. They are simple souls who were merely exercising their rights but got caught for the wrong reasons.

Why, for the last many months have 18 women been detained, as claimed by Khadija Shah (one of the detainees) in an open letter in a daily newspaper? Justice requires that their cases be taken up on priority for immediate resolution, allowing them an opportunity to defend themselves. Let the prosecutors present incontrovertible evidence if they are to be truly punished. Why is the taxpayers’ money being wasted on them? Just to satisfy a few with bloated egos that have nothing to do with humility or compassion?

For a country that takes pride in calling itself custodian of chadar and char divari (respect of women), these kind of crude tactics are totally unbefitting. Why did the nation's honor fall asleep the day Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s sister, Fatima Jinnah was murdered in her house in Karachi but Jinnah House, a concrete palace’s ‘sacrilege’ became an unforgivable crime? What a lopsided approach to preserving sanctity of ‘holiness’! God-made humans have no worth but man-made objects are priceless. How easily we can drift away from the teachings of our spiritual guides is quite apparent. Where are today’s Abu Darrs who dared question authorities and got exiled?

Challenging the powerful does not entail resort to violence alone. Putting up a verbal battle is good enough which maybe more terrifying than physical assault. History testifies how penniless philosophers, artists, poets, writers and thinkers were persecuted because they dared to bring about mental revolutions which are more lethal for the sustenance of authorities, particularly if they are retrogressively inclined.

The writer is a lawyer and author, and an Adjunct Faculty at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), member Advisory Board and Senior Visiting Fellow of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE)