Politicians, media and civil society organisations have condemned the baseless allegations and campaign against Aurat March organisers by the extremist religious groups, rightwing media and trolls.
Expressing deep concern over the social media campaign by some elements against the organisers of the last week’s Aurat March, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has warned against employing religion-based laws to stifle the voice of women groaning under a patriarchal mindset.
In a statement on Saturday, PPP secretary-general Farhatullah Babar said that organisers had not only denied false allegations levelled against them but also exposed how the footage of the images of their protest demonstrations had been doctored to back lies and slander against them.
“The falsification of the footage of the images, including the conflation of the flag of an organiser’s body with that of another country has already been exposed in media talk shows,” he added.
Mr Babar said the extent to which the detractors of the Aurat March were going against women and putting even their lives at risk was both shocking and alarming.
The PPP called upon the government and law enforcement agencies to provide protection to the participants in the Aurat March against harm to which they had been exposed by malicious false propaganda against them.
“The rationale behind Aurat March and its open criticism of the patriarchal mindset of society … must be understood and appreciated,” he said, adding: “It is deplorable that instead of trying to understand, some elements unleashed a campaign to demonise the participants and expose them to violence through false and vile propaganda.”
“The Aurat March should have been seen as an occasion for the patriarchal mindset to recognise the distortions in the society that perpetuate inequality and deny women their rights,” he pointed out.
Mr Babar said it was an occasion to unlearn the numerous biases against women and for the society to think whether a woman was a separate legal entity or a piece of property.
Prominent news anchor Shahzeb Khanzada also debunked the falsification of the AAM videos and slogans.
“The mob has been primed to act in self-righteous fury, and unless the state responds appropriately, the unthinkable could happen,” wrote Pakistan’s reputed independent English language newspaper Dawn in an editorial piece on Sunday.
Using a doctored video as part of a malicious disinformation campaign, hatred of the most visceral kind has been deliberately stoked against organisers of the Aurat March, which was held on March 8 — International Women’s Day — in several cities in Pakistan.
“Shamefully, a number of journalists and political commentators — among them some habitual offenders — fuelled the controversy. Accusations of blasphemy are being levelled, often a chilling precursor to religiously inspired violence in this country. Sure enough, right-wing groups held angry demonstrations on Friday threatening vigilante action. Even the banned TTP purportedly issued a statement to that effect,” says the paper.
The Aurat March organisers have issued a strong rebuttal of the claims made in the disinformation campaign. They shared the original version of the video clip that was falsely captioned in an attempt to show the participants raising objectionable slogans, and explained that a banner being portrayed as offensive was the personal account of a child sexual abuse victim. It was also clarified that the flag seen at the march was not that of France — a lie being perpetuated to paint the event as being ‘un-Islamic’ and promoting a ‘foreign-funded agenda’ — but that of the feminist movement that is the main force behind the event.
The organisers also demanded an apology from those who, by design, have incited hatred on manufactured grounds in order to vilify the feminist movement and silence it. Needless to say, no apology has thus far been forthcoming.
In one sense, the venom being spewed against the Aurat March was expected; it has been so every year since the event became the centrepiece of International Women’s Day celebrations in Pakistan. But this time around, the campaign has been particularly vicious and for obvious reasons, potentially more deadly. Allegations of blasphemy are akin to painting a target on the backs of the individuals in the cross hairs.
What has been set in motion by reactionary elements demands intervention from the state, which has been claiming credit for cracking down on religious extremism in recent years. Instead of being a silent spectator, the government must act immediately to denounce the threats and punish the hatemongers.
Meanwhile, the new generation of rights activists by now know well the malevolent forces arrayed against them. These elements have no qualms using any tactic, howsoever despicable, to discredit the struggle for equality, dignity and security from gender-based violence.
Looking ahead, rights activists should build upon the momentum created by their determination and courage. They would also do well to take some cues from the activism of the feisty women who preceded them — those that earned their spurs during Gen Zia’s dictatorship, and knew that resistance does not preclude engaging with the state, the paper said.
Another major national daily, The Nation in an editorial article has also slammed the rightwing campaign describing it a deliberate incitement of violence against the women rights activists.
Whether one is liberal or conservative, left-leaning or right-wing, one political issue that the whole country can get behind is that misinformation and false allegations are not tolerable, especially of crimes as serious and volatile as blasphemy. This deliberate and malicious spread of misinformation can lead to riots, loss of life, further division in society, and ultimately, a weakening of the writ of law.
The aftermath of the march has “shown us the worst face of this menace”. Support of the Aurat March and feminism is one thing — there is room for civil disagreement and discourse on the topic”. What is not acceptable is how the virulent backlash has given way to coordinated defamation and misinformation campaigns, which include doctoring fake videos and posters to make it seem like the organisers included illegal rhetoric in its demands, the paper wrote.
Such false misinformation includes altering videos and deliberately misconstruing posters to create an impression that the supporters espoused anti-national anti-religious rhetoric.
There should be no tolerance for such dangerous campaigns and the government needs to take action against those perpetuating mistruths. This includes prominent journalists, so-called experts and well-known social media personalities. There is clear cut incitement of violence and murder — the government knows very well that allegations of such nature lead to vigilante and mob violence.
Aurat March organisers are receiving death and violent threats openly. False allegations, particularly of blasphemy and being anti-national have become a crutch for a malicious segment of the society and have posed huge problems for the government before.
The government should make an example of those who have lied and spread false content, and then also work on strengthening legislation that criminalises and severely punishes those who engineer volatile and deceptive social media campaigns, the paper wrote.