Attacks on Aurat March, minorities and critics highlight shrinking space for dissent in Pakistan

Attacks on Aurat March, minorities and critics highlight shrinking space for dissent in Pakistan
Aurat women's march to mark International Women's Day (Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)

The state of civic space in Pakistan continues to be rated as “repressed” in the December 2020 report by the CIVICUS Monitor. In recent months, intimidation and threats against women activists involved in the Aurat March have been experienced, while groups continue to raise concerns about enforced disappearances. Pashtun activists have been arrested for their comments during protests, transgender persons have continued to face attacks and human rights defenders are detained and prosecuted. The authorities also attempted to increase controls over the media, failed to address online hate campaigns against journalists, while three people were sentenced to death for online blasphemy.

Peaceful Assembly

Intimidation and threats against women’s march

On 8th March 2021, for the fourth consecutive year, thousands of women across Pakistan took part in the Aurat March (Women’s March) events held in towns and cities to mark International Women’s Day and to reclaim their space in society, speak up for their rights and demand justice from the system that has failed them because of patriarchal structures. The protest took the form of marches, public art displays and performances highlighting the challenges faced by women.

The organisers described the 2021 events as a protest against the "patriarchy pandemic". Protesters demanded an increase in the health care allocation in next year's fiscal budget and transparency on how this increase will reach women and transgender communities. They also called for access to vaccinations regardless of gender or ethnic background and an end to privatising the health care system. Other demands include recognising the denial of contraception by family members as domestic violence and subsidising menstrual products

As in previous years, the organisers and participants faced a sustained campaign of misinformation and threats. Just days before the Aurat March was to be held, social media trends opposing it began going viral. One hashtag claimed that the Aurat March was foreign-funded and was promoting a Western agenda.

Segments of Pakistan’s media and the country’s religious right-wing groups accused the marchers of “vulgarity” and “obscenity” for demanding equal rights, in particular objecting to slogans that asserted “my body, my choice” (“mera jism, meri marzi”).

Organisers in Karachi were threatened online, while more high-profile figures in Lahore said they had received "serious death threats" via email, telephone and in text messages.

Anonymous social media users doctored a video of sloganeering women in Karachi to make their words appear “blasphemous” against Islam. The unverified video was then shared widely on social media. In Pakistan, a conviction for blasphemy can carry a mandatory death penalty, and such allegations have increasingly seen mobs take matters into their own hands.

In another incident, images purportedly showed the French flag brandished at the Aurat March in Islamabad with social media users accusing participants of subscribing to a “foreign agenda” also went viral. However, the claim was false as the French flag has blue, white and red stripes while participants held a flag with red, white and purple stripes, the banner of the Women’s Democratic Front, one of the main organisers of the marches in various cities. In Lahore especially, women attendees were aggressively followed by men with mics and cameras. No one has been held to account for the intimidation, threats or misinformation. 

Women in Pakistan experience various types of violence including sexual assault, murder and abduction. At least 28 percent of women aged between 15 and 49 have experienced physical violence. It ranks near the bottom of global gender parity indices, with the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020 rating it at 151 out of 153 countries ranked.

Protests against enforced disappearances 

Ethnic minority groups continue to hold protests to highlight cases of enforced disappearances in Pakistan. In February 2021, a sit-in protest was organised in the capital Islamabad by the Voice of Baloch Missing Persons, calling for an end to enforced disappearances in Balochistan. For one week, protesters held up photos of missing relatives under the watchful eyes of police surrounding them. The protest ended after an assurance that Prime Minister Imran Khan would meet them in March 2020. Human rights groups have reported that enforced disappearances have continued relentlessly in the province of Balochistan targeting students, activists, journalists and human rights defenders.

Separately, the Joint Action Committee (JAC) for Shia missing persons and families of enforced disappearance warned on 15th March of a countrywide protest from April 2021 if their loved ones were not recovered. They said despite repeated assurances from the authorities the missing persons had not returned to their homes or been traced.

As previously documented, the groups and individuals targeted in enforced disappearances include political activists and human rights defenders. In some instances, people are openly taken into custody by the police or intelligence agencies, and often authorities deny information to families about where their loved ones are being held. Many of those forcibly disappeared have also been subjected to torture and death during detention. In some cases, the victims have eventually been released or their whereabouts disclosed to their families but they continue to be held in arbitrary detention, including in internment camps.


Pashtun activists arrested

The authorities have continued to persecute the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) which in recent years has mobilised nationwide against abuses targeting the ethnic Pashtun people.

Ali Wazir, a lawmaker and PTM leader, was arrested on 16th December in Peshawar over accusations that he made anti-state comments during a rally in Karachi on 6th December 2020. The detained lawmaker was produced in the Anti-Terrorism Court the next day, where the judge remanded him in police custody. The First Information Report registered against Wazir accused him under sections 120-B (criminal conspiracy), 153-A (promoting enmity between different groups), 505-B (statements inducing a person to commit offence against the state), 506 (criminal intimidation) and 188 (disobeying order of public servant) of the Pakistan Penal Code.

In January 2021, another two members of PTM were remanded in police custody for four days. The two were Abdul Haq from University Road and PTM leader Dr Said Alam Mahsud, who was arrested from his home in Hayatabad Township. Both the PTM leaders were arrested because they participated in a protest in Peshawar.

In February 2021, police arrested eight members of the PTM ahead of a public meeting. The PTM had planned the rally in the Superior Science College grounds to mark the second anniversary of the dealth of its leader, Arman Luni. The arrested PTM members were identified as Israr Safi, Molla Behram, Zubair Shah, Mohammad Zahir, Ghulam Sarwar, Mushtaq Wazir, Nawab Khan and Abdullah. The FIR said that police recovered a pistol and rounds from the accused. They have been booked under Sections 188 and 15 of the Arms Act.

CIVICUS has previously highlighted the judicial harassment of PTM activists, the arbitrary arrest of protesters and disruption of protests, the unlawful killing of PTM leader Arman Loni, and restrictions on media coverage.

Attacks on transgender community

There have been continued attacks against the transgender community in Pakistan. In January 2021, a transgender person, Chahat, was stabbed multiple times in Malakand in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Chahat, along with four other transgender persons, was heading to a music party when the incident took place. According to sources, they were stopped by individuals who tried to rob them. They stabbed Chahat multiple times when she resisted. Also in January 2021, a 40-year-old transgender person was found dead with torture marks on the body in Clifton in Karachi.

In February 2021, two transgender persons were shot dead by unidentified assailants in Gujranwala in Punjab Province. Police said that the victims, identified as Shehzad alias Sanam and Zain alias Zaini, were in their home in the Madukhalil area. They were preparing to leave for a function when unidentified motorcyclists entered the house and shot them. As a result of the attack, both victims died on the spot.

The rights of transgender people are protected under Pakistani law. Despite this, implementation of the law is weak and transgender people in Pakistan still face high levels of discrimination and violence. Many are excluded from society and face challenges accessing the public health care system, education, employment and other institutions. Also, according to human rights groups, the authorities abuse transgender women and threaten them when they seek justice.

Human rights defender in detention after bail rejected

Professor Muhammad Ismail was arrested on 2nd February 2021 after the Anti-Terrorism Court in Peshawar cancelled his interim pre-trial bail. He and his wife are facing trumped up charges in relation to terrorism, sedition and criminal conspiracy.

On 4th February 2021, the professor was chained and taken to his family home in Marghuz village, Swabi District.The Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) police seized documents and mobiles belonging to him and his wife, Uzlifat Ismail. The houses of relatives were also raided.

The validity of police evidence used to detain the professor was questioned by the Pakistan National Assembly’s Human Rights Committee during a meeting on 24th February. The committee found the answers given by the officer in the case unsatisfactory and said due diligence was not carried out while framing the charges. The committee concluded that the handling of Professor Ismail’s case has “brought disrepute to the Police department”.

Mohammed Ismail is a prominent member of Pakistani civil society and the focal person for the Pakistan NGO Forum (PNF), an umbrella body composed of five networks of civil society organisations (CSOs) in Pakistan. Since July 2019, Mohammed Ismail and his family have faced systematic harassment and intimidation from the security forces.

It is believed that the case against Muhammad Ismail and his family is in retaliation for the work of his daughter, award winning women’s rights activist Gulalai Ismail. She has faced harassment and persecution from the authorities for her peaceful advocacy for women’s rights and her efforts to end violations against the ethnic Pashtun people of Pakistan. She was forced to flee Pakistan due to concerns for her safety.

Human rights defender denied civilian trial

On 28th January 2021, the Peshawar High Court denied Idris Khattak’s appeal to be tried in a civilian court and confirmed that the hearing take place in a military court. According to Amnesty International, there is very little information that has been shared with his lawyers or family as to where that case stands, with military courts in Pakistan notoriously shun transparency, due process and human rights. His whereabouts remain unknown.

More information about the charges against Idris were revealed in the judgment published on 30th January 2021. He has been charged on multiple counts related to spying and other conduct “prejudicial to the safety or interests of the State” under Section 3 of the Official Secrets Act (OSA) as well as section 59 of the Pakistan Army Act, 1952 – which gives military courts jurisdiction to try civilians for some offences under the OSA.

Khattak is a human rights defender and independent researcher, who has documented human rights violations faced by people in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

As previously documented, Khattak was on his way home from Islamabad on 13th November 2019 when his rented car was intercepted near the Swabi Interchange of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province by four unidentified men in plain clothes and he forcibly dissapeared. Nearly seven months later, on 16th June 2020, the Ministry of Defence finally admitted that human rights defender Khattak was being held in state custody.


Authorities attempt to increase controls over the media

According to Human Rights Watch, journalists across Pakistan have raised the alarm about proposed legislation that would augment the powers of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) and allow it to access human resources data at independent media houses.

PEMRA has long been the enforcer of the government’s intensifying campaign of censorship and repression of the media. It has ordered television channels to shut down for airing criticism of the government, terminated live interviews of opposition leaders and blocked cable operators from broadcasting networks that aired critical programmes.

On 25th January 2021, the government introduced a bill in the Senate to give PEMRA new powers to obtain employee records and contracts, asserting that the move will protect the right of journalists to be paid.

Pakistan’s opposition-controlled Senate has rejected the bill, with Senator Sherry Rehman criticising PEMRA for trying to use a “back door” to gain further control over the already stifled media. Pakistan’s media outlets fear that the government may simply pass the new law by decree, or try to push the bill through the National Assembly, where it has a majority, before resubmitting it to the Senate.

Online hate campaign against journalists

In January 2021, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reported on a major online smear campaign against the Urdu-language services of two British media outlets, the BBC and The Independent newspaper. Thousands of Pakistani Internet users have called for boycotts of these two Urdu-language services and have threatened their journalists in the course of a two-week-old hate and defamation campaign.

A video posted on 2nd January 2021 on, a news and discussion site that supports Pakistan’s ruling party and armed forces, attacked the “personal opinions and political inclinations” of BBC Urdu’s journalists. The surnames, first names, jobs and Twitter account details of ten BBC Urdu journalists were posted online at the same time as the video. Analysis of the comments indicated that this campaign was being orchestrated in reprisal for several editorials and op-ed pieces regarded as overly critical of the authorities.

Three sentenced to death for online blasphemy

On 9th January 2021, the anti-terrorism court (ATC) of Islamabad sentenced three men to death for committing blasphemy online. A fourth convict was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment. They have been accused of running Facebook pages displaying offensive material.

According to the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), which had investigated the case, Rana Nouman Rafa­qat and Abdul Waheed operated fake profiles and disseminated blasphemous material on social media, while Nasir Ahmad uploaded blasphemous videos on a YouTube channel.

A fourth accused, Professor Anwaar Ahmed, had been arrested for disseminating controversial and blasphemous views during a lecture at the Islamabad Model College where he was a teacher in the Urdu department. A video clip of the lecture was posted by someone on social media and went viral.

The four accused were arrested and indicted in 2017 and pleaded not guilty to the charges against them. During the proceedings, spread over the past three years, the prosecution produced 19 witnesses against them. On the other hand, the witnesses for the defence were not admitted by the court because they were blood relatives of the accused.

According to the Center for Social Justice (CSJ), a minority rights organisation, at least 1,855 people have been accused of offences related to religion - mostly under Sections 295-B and C to 298-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, better known as the Blasphemy Laws, between 1987 and 2020. The organisation found that the highest number of blasphemy cases - 200 - was reported in 2020. Out of these at least 150 or 75 per cent of the accused were Muslims.

Among non-Muslims, Ahmadis accounted for 40, or 20 per cent, of the total reported cases, Christians seven or 3.5 per cent and Hindus two or one per cent. The Center for Social Justice Executive Director Peter Jacob said that according to the data collected by his organisation, the trend of blasphemy reports revealed rampant misuse of blasphemy law, which had ‘increased exponentially’ over time.