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Women power on display in Pakistan

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VEILED VIGILANTES: Islamic women students stand guard outside Jamia Hafsa religious seminary in Islamabad, where they are holding two policemen and an alleged brothel owner captive.
VEILED VIGILANTES: Islamic women students stand guard outside Jamia Hafsa religious seminary in Islamabad, where they are holding two policemen and an alleged brothel owner captive.

Nirupama Subramanian

ISLAMABAD: Students of a prominent seminary in the heart of Pakistan's capital were locked in a tense stand-off with the Government on Wednesday after taking three women and two policemen hostage.

This is the second confrontation between the students of the women's Jamia Hafsa madrasa and the Government this year.

In January, the women took over a public library for children next door and refused to vacate unless the Government rebuilt mosques that it had demolished and introduced Islamic law.

That crisis continues even after the Government's surrender, with Religious Affairs Minister Ejaz-ul-Haq laying the first bricks of the reconstruction work.

President Pervez Musharraf's non-Islamist opponents contrasted his assertions of "establishing the government's writ" in all parts of Pakistan, with the Government's apparent inability to enforce the law in the capital.

The latest challenge to the Government's "writ" came after Hafsa students, assisted by men from the neighbouring Lal Masjid, captured three women allegedly running a brothel in a nearby residential area on Tuesday night and imprisoned them at the seminary.

On Wednesday morning, the police arrested two teachers of the Hafsa for their suspected involvement in the raid. The Lal Masjid students retaliated by taking hostage two policemen and their pick-up vans as they were driving past the mosque.

An atmosphere of tension prevailed over the area. Hundreds of stick-wielding masked men and boys patrolled the road running past the mosque after sealing it at both ends, while women in black burquas kept a look-out from the seminary's roof.

Male students swarmed around the two captured police Toyota pick-ups parked in the mosque grounds.

Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi, administrator of the Jamia Hafsa, told a press conference that the policemen would be released only in exchange for the arrested teachers, five Hafsa students who had been arrested earlier, plus a former ISI operative, Khalid Khwaja, arrested two months ago for allegedly inciting the women students against the Government.

Mr. Khwaja, who has been linked to Al-Qaeda and is associated with an NGO called Defence of Human Rights, was also actively involved in the missing people's issue.

Mr. Ghazi said the police should also register the "strongest possible FIR" against the women so that they would "never" come out of prison.

The only word from the Government until late evening was that efforts were being made to free the five persons who had been imprisoned in the mosque and seminary.

Defending his students' actions, Mr. Ghazi said they took the law into their hands because the police had failed to curb the "indecent" activities of the three women.

The administrator said the girls at the seminary had made it their mission to "cleanse" society of its "ills", and they had made a beginning with the neighbourhood.

A large number of residents, present at the press conference, gave "heartfelt thanks" to the students for closing down a "vice-den" that had been a "long-standing problem" for them.


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