Pakistani women defy threats, run mixed marathon

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

For Nabila Rafique, the race wasn't about finishing first. She ran and walked the course wearing a traditional salwar kameez (loose-fitting tunic) with a shawl. As she focused on putting one foot in front of the other, she paid little heed to the throngs cheering on the curbs - or the armed police posted at every corner.

"This is just for the experience," says Mrs. Rafique, who felt her victory in Sunday's Lahore Marathon was won at the word "Go!"

For weeks, Islamist groups had tried to ban women from the race. On Friday police arrested more than 400 people when a protest against the marathon turned violent. The controversy shook this city of 8 million, raising concerns that violence would disrupt the race, which was designed as a fundraiser for quake victims.

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The threat only underscored for many the symbolic importance of the race.

"Though we are afraid, we are running," says Ethiopian star runner Ashu Kasim, who is Muslim. "We can have our faith and we can run."

The race went off without incident. The only challenge to some 6,000 police was controlling the exuberance of the crowds, who cheered more than 15,000 runners.

But the fears of violence were not unfounded. Since the inaugural Lahore Marathon was held last January, allowing men and women to run together for the first time, marathons have emerged as one of the most contested battlegrounds in a country struggling to define its Islamic identity.

Progressive elements argue that races like this, by granting women greater freedom in public, advance Pakistan's commitment to "enlightened moderation," the program of social reform touted by President Pervez Musharraf. But the religious right here, whose political power and influence many say are growing, have grabbed attention by launching both verbal and physical attacks against races. In April 2005, supporters of the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA), a coalition of six religious parties, physically assaulted women running a race in Gujranwala, 60 miles north of Lahore, prompting the government to ban mixed gender races.

"It's not only a marathon - it's about whether Pakistan is moving toward liberalism, shedding its Taliban past," argues Jugnu Mohsin, publisher of The Friday Times, one of the leading progressive newspapers in Lahore.

Her religious opponents disagree, however, saying that mixed races are an unwanted transgression from Islamic tradition, which says that women and men should not mix freely in public.

"We have great support for the sports played by women ... but women should run separately and in a separate area," argues Hafiz Salman Butt, Lahore chapter president of the MMA. Mr. Butt and other religious leaders also scorned the idea of Pakistani women running in shorts on the streets of Lahore. In the end, however, only a handful of foreign professional women wore shorts, with most women wearing the traditional salwar kameez.

President Musharraf's "enlightened moderation" was supposed to bring a greater dimension of liberal democracy to Pakistan, dispelling the notion that Islam is at odds with modernity.

But many analysts see the opposite trend at work. Right-wing religious groups swept to power in 2002, when the MMA took control of the provincial government of the North West Frontier Province. They are now the second-largest party in the National Assembly, occupying nearly one fourth of all seats. With greater political clout has come greater leverage to challenge national laws.

In March 2005, these groups successfully launched a campaign to stop the government from removing religious identities from passports. The MMA has also introduced a parliamentary bill seeking to ban women in advertising; a decision is pending.

Analysts say the dispute over marathons underscores the government's ambivalence toward checking growing extremism. The Lahore government decided to hold a marathon last year, but they disrupted subsequent races after religious parties complained.

When the administration changes directions like this, analysts say, it translates into a victory for the religious right. Sunday's race was therefore viewed as an important line in the sand, one which even ordinary citizens were not willing to yield.

"Today it's saying that men and women can't run together; tomorrow that they can't work together," says Shakir Husain, a business consultant in Karachi, who felt compelled to pen a newspaper op-ed.

Efforts like these eventually paid off. Days before the race, Lahore city officials said the mixed race would go on. Hundreds of women, including Rafique, turned out for the shorter "family" runs, dashing and walking alongside their husbands and children.

Ordinary citizens hope their participation demonstrates the direction in which Pakistan is headed. "My family took part in the race because we wanted to make a statement. Because we don't find it right, the separation," says Aamir Rafique, Nabila's husband, walking briskly to keep pace with his wife.

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