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Pakistani government in a bind over women's sit-in

A protest over the razing of mosques has become a challenge to Musharraf's rule as he tries to rein in militants.

February 26, 2007|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — Veiled in black from head to toe, the young women wield bamboo staves and speak in hushed but defiant tones of fighting to the death should Pakistani police seek to evict them.

Several hundred female students from an Islamic seminary in the center of Islamabad have been holed up for the last month inside a public library, in an unprecedented protest that poses a dilemma for President Pervez Musharraf's government.

The young women's ostensible demand is the rebuilding of half a dozen mosques in the capital that the government tore down because they were constructed on illegally seized land. Dozens more are under demolition orders.

But the dissident Muslim cleric who appears to have masterminded the protest has parlayed it into a broader challenge to Musharraf's authority, at a time when the president is under growing Western pressure to act against Islamic militants who find sanctuary in Pakistan.

"People are angry that Musharraf is a puppet of America," said Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who together with his cleric brother, Abdul Aziz, runs the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, which adjoins the girls' seminary and the library. "That is the heart of the matter."

Pakistani authorities view the mosque as a hotbed of radicalism, and orders are out for the arrest of both clerics.

The confrontation is playing out against the backdrop of some of the most stringent state precautions in years against suicide bombings by Islamic militants in Pakistan, which have claimed scores of lives since the start of the year. Attackers have targeted the capital's international airport, a luxury hotel, a courtroom and various security installations.

On Saturday, three men in central Pakistan accidentally blew themselves up while reportedly on their way to attack a slain policeman's memorial service. Authorities said their motorbike hit a bump, prematurely detonating their bomb belts.

The mosque protest appears to be an explicit warning to Musharraf against bowing to Western demands that he reform the country's network of more than 13,000 madrasas, or religious schools. Many are known to have direct links to militant groups that have been staging attacks both in Pakistan and abroad, and have sent fighters to battle North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops across the border in Afghanistan.

In tightly policed Pakistan, it is almost unheard of for a protest on public property to continue for as long as this one has. The police's hands-off approach contrasts sharply with the rough treatment of demonstrators who in recent months have protested the detention of terrorism suspects without trial, charges or notification of relatives.

At those protests, relatives of the detainees were beaten and arrested, and on some occasions, police pulled down protesters' trousers to shame them.

The Pakistani government's inaction against the female students stems in part from religious and cultural taboos against physical contact between unrelated men and women. Authorities have said they do not have enough female officers to carry out arrests.

But it also is likely that a police move on the mosque complex would trigger a violent clash with masked, club-wielding men who are on round-the-clock guard atop its walls, and perhaps set off a larger fight with followers of Aziz from other mosques and madrasas in the capital and nearby Rawalpindi.

The government has tried, without success, to placate the protesters. Earlier this month, demolition orders against 81 mosques were rescinded, and work began on reconstruction of one of the mosques that was knocked down.

But instead of dispersing, the protesters expanded their demands. The young women now say they will not abandon their protest until Sharia, or Islamic law, is imposed throughout Pakistan.

"That is the only way that this will end," said Amna Adeem, a 20-year-old protester wearing a black veil that left only her flashing brown eyes uncovered. Like many of the seminary students taking part in the sit-in, she is from Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, which is far more religiously conservative than Islamabad, the relatively cosmopolitan seat of government.

The protesters appear ready for a long confrontation. Supporters arrive every few hours with large, steaming pots of food. Mattresses and quilts are spread out on the upper floors of the library.

The young women said that they spend their days in Koranic studies and that they sleep in shifts so a large contingent is always awake and standing guard in the library's main room.

The government says it will move at some point to rein in the protesters, but has not said how. Security personnel have several times cordoned off the area, but quickly got into scuffles with neighborhood residents, many of whom also are followers of Aziz.

"This cannot go on indefinitely," said the country's religious affairs minister, Ijaz ul-Haq, who accused Aziz of using the young women as "human shields."

"This isn't what Islam teaches," Haq said.

Negotiations have proved fruitless, he said.

Ghazi, Aziz's brother, denied reports that militants had stockpiled weapons on the mosque grounds. Earlier this month, one of the young women was photographed by a Pakistani newspaper holding what appeared to be an AK-47 assault rifle, but Ghazi later said it was only a toy.

He insisted that he and his brother had not orchestrated the protest, but warned that efforts to quell it by force would be met with resistance.

"We will do whatever we have to do for the protection of Islam," said Adeem, the female student. "The government can bring in its weapons, whatever it likes, but we will never give in."

laura.king@latimes.com

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