Shrouded from head to toe, with just their eyes showing from a slit in the veil, these women in black mean business. Armed with solid bamboo staves, the 6,500 students of Jamia Hafsa (JH), a seminary attached to the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad, have posed a direct challenge to the authority of the government.
The seminary and the mosque are run by two brothers, Abdul Aziz and Abdul Rashid Ghazi - hardline clerics who have long opposed Pakistan's alliance with the United States and President Pervez Musharraf's policies on the 'war on terror'.
Last week, in a bid to impose their own rules of morality, some students forcibly entered the house of a woman, believed to be running a brothel. The students abducted the owner, Shamim Akhtar, her daughter, daughter-in-law, and a six-month-old child for not closing down their 'criminal activity'.
"We did nothing unlawful," insisted Ume Hasaan, the principal of JH, when asked why they had taken the law into their hands. "There is no law in this country. Everyone knew about the activities going on in Shamim Akhtar's house... even the police. When we complained, we were told by those very law-enforcing agencies that their hands were tied as Shamim Akhtar had influential clients."
Elaborates Syed Farrukh Sear, who heads the neighborhood JH committee: "Akhtar has been running a brothel for over a decade... We had complained to the police, several times. She was arrested two years ago but was released and all charges against her were dropped." This time, Akhtar was released two days later - after she read out a confessional statement before the media about having been involved in "immoral activities".
This is JH's second victory against the Musharraf government and his rhetoric of 'enlightened moderation'. JH clerics first challenged the government in January, this year, when they occupied a children's library in Islamabad in protest against the demolition of the Masjid Ameer Hamza that was razed to make way for a road. JH clerics feared their seminary would meet with the same fate.
Incidentally, the library sit-in continues, with 150 students present in the library at any given time. However, children are allowed to come and go as they please. "Once our demands are met, we will leave quietly," Hasaan says.
These demands are: reconstruction of all the seven mosques [in Islamabad]; that Musharraf apologize publicly for the demolitions of mosques and repent to Allah for the sin committed; to establish the Shariah (Islamic law); and to stop terming people who fight in the path of Allah as militants and terrorists.
Quite uncharacteristic of a military ruler, Musharraf appears fazed by these vigilante militant forces. Despite the flak, the government has taken no action so far. Rumors are rife that the government's restraint is because the seminary has been stockpiling arsenal. Hasaan retaliates, "If it were so, where was the military intelligence, whose offices are just a few hundred meters away from our seminary? Why didn't they take action then?"
In an unusual bid, President Musharraf pleaded to civil society and, in particular, to religious heads for their support. "This is a very dangerous proposition," rues Anees Haroon, who heads Aurat Foundation, a women's rights group. She believes that Musharraf's "irresponsible statement" will "further polarize the country". "The government is quite capable of taking action if it wants to," claims Haroon.
In the meantime, the governments' inaction is fanning a number of conspiracy theories. Physicist and rights activist A.H. Nayyar, feels that the Lal Masjid episode has been "engineered" to create the "fear of Talibanization and to legitimize Musharraf's rule in the eyes of the West". If it is just a game, Musharraf is "playing with fire", cautions Nayyar. However, economist Asad Sayeed feels that it is a conspiracy "within the establishment" against the President.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (an NGO) has pooh-poohed Musharraf's assertion that the burqa brigade was not being stopped so as to avoid injuring them, and pointed out that the government was not so solicitous about the dozens of female political workers, labor leaders and NGO activists who have borne the brunt of police batons over the past months. "The lack of action in this case only exposes the deep-rooted links between the military and religious jehadi groups," HRCP said in a statement.
Notwithstanding the various theories, one thing is clear: Musharraf's honeymoon with the West is over. The General has fallen short of his commitment to the West in fighting their 'war on terror' and is constantly being censured for not doing enough to allay their fears. At home, too his popularity seems to have waned, especially since the recent unceremonious suspension of the Chief Justice of Pakistan.
Furthermore, Aziz (Lal Masjid's chief cleric) last week announced the setting up of a parallel judicial court - the Shariah court - inside the mosque premises. The clerics have also given a month's notice to the government to enforce the shariah or "let us do the job", threatening retaliatory suicide attacks in case the government launches any 'operation' against them.
The government's woes don't end there. The male students from Jamia Fareedia, also under the Lal Masjid, have been going around Islamabad telling music and video shop owners to shut shop and look for other options. The Hafsa women have been busy instructing women to adopt the Islamic dress code. "Somebody has to purge our society of the evil, because the government is not doing its job," says Ghazi.
The episode has spurred other religious groups in the country to enforce their own moral codes. Civil society groups have expressed concern over letters being issued to owners of cyber cafes and video and audio cassette shops demanding their closure in Peshawar, bordering Afghanistan. Letters have also been issued to girls' schools in other cities of the North West Frontier Province, asking them to adopt the veil. There have also been announcements on FM channels against sending girls to school.