In the early 1980s, a small group of gutsy women came together to oppose the adverse effects on women of martial law and General Ziaul Haq’s Islamisation campaign. In 1983, they took to the streets in Lahore, protesting the case of a blind girl, Safia Bibi, who had been raped but had ended up in jail, instead, on charges of adultery. Of the few photographs that survive of that protest, there is one that stands out — a black-and-white image of a female activist being hustled away by law-enforcement personnel.
Behind her, in the distance, a crescent-shaped crowd of curious men observe the spectacle with slack-jawed interest. A car trundles past, its driver similarly fascinated by the scene unfolding before him: the woman frozen in an awkward, furious dance with two struggling female police officers. If you look closely, you will recognise this young woman – today, three decades on, she is this country’s most celebrated human-rights activist. But recognition doesn’t really matter. You will remember her anyway, especially her eyes — her angry, indignant eyes, alight with Promethean fire.
The girl on the cover of this magazine does not have angry eyes. But the story of this child activist has evoked more anger and horror, along with a slew of more mixed emotions, in Pakistan and abroad. In a sense, it is a chapter from the same story — the story of violence against women, the story of their suppression and the suppression of those who speak out in their support. On one level, this story plays out every day; on occasion, it catapults into national consciousness, then tumbles back into the black hole of collective memory. Safia Bibi, Mukhtaran Mai, that nameless woman who was flogged in Swat, blasphemy-convict Asia Bibi too, and by extension, Salmaan Taseer — they are all new actors in an old play.