The Peshawar branch of the Aurat Foundation held a protest march on April 13, 1999. As all right thinking people, they were shocked and horrified at the dastardly murder at 'Dastak', Lahore. Since the murdered girl and the murderers were all from Peshawar, it makes it even more relevant for the Pathans to stand up and be counted. It is imperative for everyone who believes in justice and fair play to raise their voices in protest, and to demonstrate their unity against the tide of intolerance and injustice that is overpowering our country. Yes, Samia is dead, and no amount of protests will bring her back to life, and many more might die before things change; but things will have to change, because human nature demands freedom of choice.

As it is, the obscurantists seem to be winning through default. Their tactics are violent. I believe they are terrified 'their' women might get wind of the suspicion that they belong to the human race; that they deserve more respect as human beings; that they too, may demand freedom of choice. Yet, no nation can progress without a modicum of human rights as a whole and, women's rights in particular. Today Pakistan is being held hostage by the shortsighted policies of the late unlamented dictator, Zia ul haq. Today, Peshawar, in particular, is flooded with the 'Taliban' remanants of the Afghan civil war. Intolerance and violence is almost a way of life now.

Afrasaib Khattak and others from the Human Rights Peshawar Chapter, Zahid Elahi and his workers from the Association for the Creation of Employment (ACE) and workers from the NGO 'Sangi', from Hazara, were there, and involved themselves whole heartedly in the protest. Some NGOs, although professing to work for the empowerment of women, ignored the whole issue. Inspite of the invitation to attend the protest, Mairaj Humayun's 'De Laas Gul', Marium Bibi's 'Kwendo Kor', Yasmin Begum's 'Shirkat Gah', and Feroz Shah's 'SRSC' were prominent by their absence.

I had heard about the protest march accidentally. Sickened by the murder of young Samia at 'Dastak', and the arrogant press conferences held by Saima's father and his lawyer; horrified by the threats against Ms Asma Jehangir; appalled by the language used against any woman who dared to speak up against the crime, I jumped at the chance to be a part of the protest, any protest against the gathering clouds of darkness and intolerance. I wore my thickest pair of cotton clothes, I remember reading about how the police had torn the clothes off the backs of some protesting women; and I wore my trainers so I could run fast, if necessary.

The march was to start from the Press Club of Peshawar at about 10 AM, but was delayed, since we waited for those who did not come. When I arrived with my son, (my greatest contribution to the cause of women's rights), I found there were more men than women present. This was a heartening sight. I believe women's problems can only be solved with the active participation of men. Many women from the private sector were forbidden to attend the protest by the men in their families. The mood of the women lawyers, private female citizens and girls who were present was defiant, yet apprehensive. Everyone expected the worst and yet was prepared to face it. Just before setting off we received news that the 'Bearded Brigade' was gathering to stop the march. We were told not to panic in case of an attack. Females were to remain in the middle of the group during the march, hedged in by the men who would protect them in case of trouble.

As it turned out, the march was peaceful, and no untoward incident took place. Shouting slogans in favour of Women's Rights, Asma Jehangir, and repudiating the growing 'mullaism' and crimes against women, we arrived at Provincial Assembly building. The gates were locked. Afrasaib Khattak read out the protest note before handing it in through the bars, to be forwarded to the legislators.

Our job done, the procession dispersed. My son and I went back to the press club to retrieve our car and Afeefa, who had been too sick to walk, but wanted to have her presence registered. The place was crawling with an irate crowd of bearded men carrying thick long staves. Afeefa was recovered from a room where she had been hidden by the people at the press club. I was curious to know what was being said, but my son bundled me into the car before I was noticed. The 'Bearded Brigade' had missed their victims by about half an hour and they had blood in their eyes. Their brand of Islam stands for violence against women, it stands for intolerance; and they are very, 'religious'!

I don't think they will be unprepared next time


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