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Women students take on the Musharraf regime

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Women students of an Islamic religious school, Jamia Hafsa, during a protest gathering at Lal mosque in Islamabad on January 28.
Women students of an Islamic religious school, Jamia Hafsa, during a protest gathering at Lal mosque in Islamabad on January 28.

Nirupama Subramanian

The protest against the demolition of two mosques in Islamabad by women of the Jamia Hafsa madrassa has snowballed into a serious standoff with the Government.

COVERED FROM head to toe in black burqas that leave just enough space for the eyes, and holding long sticks, students from a prominent women's seminary in Islamabad who are squatting in a public library say they will fight to the finish to bring in Islamic rule in Pakistan.

What began as a dramatic protest against the demolition of two mosques in the capital by the women studying at the Jamia Hafsa madrassa next door to the library has snowballed into a serious standoff between the students and the Government, and another chapter in the ongoing battle between religious forces and the Musharraf regime.

Two weeks after the students took over the library, the police are preparing to move in and evict the women by force, if necessary. Police and students of the Jamia have clashed once before during a raid at the seminary soon after the July 7, 2005, London underground bombings, and the Musharraf regime has accused the seminary of harbouring wanted terrorist suspects. The women at the seminary say they are ready to face the police again.

"The government is powerful. We are powerless. But we have the power of Allah with us, and those who have the support of Allah have nothing to fear. Let them do anything, but we will not move from here," said Amna Adeem, an articulate member of the Students' Action Committee that came up in the seminary in late January, after the Capital Development Authority bulldozed two mosques that it said had encroached on public land and the city's green belt.

Immediately after the demolition, Interior Ministry officials were quoted as saying the mosques had to go because of concerns they could be used as terrorist hideouts, particularly as they were both located by a road frequently used by President Musharraf to commute from his Rawalpindi home and camp office to the capital. The road also connects the airport to the capital.

The apprehensions rose after the discovery a few months ago of several rockets at different locations in the capital, including two in the same neighbourhood as the demolished mosques.

The CDA has also sent out eviction and demolition notices to 80 other mosques and seminaries that it says have been built illegally. The Jamia Hafsa seminary, in Aabpaara, the heart of Islamabad, is among them.

Support of teachers

At least 50 of a total of 7,000 Jamia Hafsa students are actively involved in the sit-in at the library, with the full support of the madrassa's principal, teachers, and management. Holding lathis double their height, the students are staked out in various rooms of the library.

They have secured the gates from the inside with a massive steel chain and padlock. From the outside, white and black cloth have been pulled up and around the gates and the walls, so that the library, which is sandwiched between the seminary and Islamabad's landmark Lal Masjid, is now barely visible from the road.

"We will not stir out of this place unless our demands are met. First, the government has to withdraw all demolition notices and rebuild the mosques that it has demolished in exactly the same place in exactly the same way. Secondly, bring in Islamic rule in Pakistan," said Ms. Adeem, who joined the Jamia Hafsa four years ago after her school matriculation exam and is in the final year of studies at the seminary.

Arguing that mosques were Allah's home and thus could never be illegal wherever they may be built, Ms. Adeem said the students were demanding Islamic rule as only that could "give protection to mosques, madrassas, and ulema [clergy], who in turn will ensure the survival of Islam and Pakistan."

She said President Musharraf's offer to relocate the mosques did not make sense. "When even madrassas cannot be built on land where mosques once stood, how can such land be put to public use? If the government wants to give us alternate land, we will take it, but the existing mosques will stay where they are. They say the mosques are illegal, why, the President is illegal too," said Ms. Adeem.

Since 9/11, every action of this government, from making peace with India to revising the school curriculum, is seen as emanating in Washington D.C. It is no different with the demolition of the mosques.

"No Muslim would ever voluntarily go out to destroy a mosque. From this we can only conclude that President Musharraf is acting under pressure from the U.S," Ms. Adeem said.

The principal of the school, Um-e-Hassan, said she was proud of her students for putting up such resistance against the government, which she accused of trying to destroy Islam, the very basis on which Pakistan was founded.

"This is the first time in centuries that women have taken up the fight for Islam in this manner. Such a big struggle by women is unprecedented in the history of Islam," the principal said.

When the students had taken the initiative to save the religion, their teachers had no option but to back them, Ms. Um-e-Hassan said. She was not worried about her students getting hurt in possible police action.

"Everyone has to die someday. Why fear death?" she said. Agreeing that the welfare of the students was her responsibility, the principal argued that "individuals do not matter where religion is the issue."

"This is Islam's fight against the government. We have told the girls that those who want to leave can do so at any time. But they all want to stay, and what's more, their parents are pouring in to say they fully support their children's struggle," Ms. Um-e-Hassan said.

On Monday, at a rally to mark Kashmir Solidarity Day, Jamaat-e-Islami leader and president of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal Qazi Hussain Ahmed said the girls had set an example.

"I salute the girls of the Hafsa who have showed the path of jihad to their brothers," he said.

If there is police action at the mosque, there is real cause for concern that it could turn violent. While young men armed with sticks patrol the streets outside the madrassa, library and have positioned themselves on the high walls of the mosque, inside are men armed with automatic rifles.

"Kalashnikovs," the principal explained, adding that the weapons were licensed. "For the kind of life we lead, guns are absolutely necessary."

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