Legging it

The Friday Times | Feb 13, 2006

Imaduddin Ahmed

The Lahore Marathon: a day of mixed success

It was ‘Run Lahore Run’ day and I had run out of run. I was walking to complete the 5km ‘Fun Race’. With me was a motley collection of retired army officers, schoolboys in tight jeans and open slippers and other slim but struggling young men, also getting a reality check about their fitness levels.

As I approached the finish line, I heard young men cheering in the distance behind me. I could guess the cause – my friend Jacqueline Fellner, who had been training to keep fit, was leading the mixed family race. She was accompanied by cheering young men who had started in the men’s race and still hadn’t finished (like myself). Jacqueline was running to a tide of applause from the mostly uniformed schoolboy spectators.

Within twenty minutes, the rest of our crew, family and friends, had joined us at the finish line and we were a beaming team. Marathon day appeared to have been a great success. We had come as much to see a political spectacle, register our support for ‘Enlightened moderation’ and uphold our criticism of segregation (I was armed with a pen and a notepad) as we, along with over 20,000 others, had come to challenge ourselves athletically and enjoy a sunny Sunday afternoon.

We had seen no signs of the bearded-ones, let alone scenes of violence and we were pleasantly surprised to find that our crew wouldn’t have to be segregated. There was no mischief or teasing from Lahore’s male quarters, and the real icing on the cake was the organisers’ thoughtful accommodation of wheelchair-users who participated in the festivities. (Unfortunately, later news reports told us that the police had damaged and injured some of the wheelchair participants from Sindh.) “Thank you, organisers,” I thought, “you’ve put on an event that Lahore should be proud of.” As both the domestic and international contingent in our crew left the Liberty Roundabout, we were all quite content.

The day before the marathon took place, I attended a lunch for international runners hosted by Chief Minister Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi and the Chief Minister’s Task Force on Lahore – a team of Lahore’s distinguished culture vultures. Mention was made of raising funds for the President’s earthquake relief fund – for which surplus funds raised were going towards – but the buzz word seemed to be ‘mixed’. Ghouse Akbar, Chairman of the Chief Minister’s Task Force on Lahore, welcomed us to a ‘mixed’ dinner. Meanwhile, organisers sarcastically joked amongst themselves: “Oh no! I’m standing in a mixed queue for a mixed lunch! Somebody shoot me!”

I talked to some of the international athletes in order to find out what they thought of segregating the 5km race. Ashu Kassim, a Muslim Ethiopian, said that “religion doesn’t stop men and women from running together.” She added that, “If Pakistani women participate in such events, they will become famous the world over, especially when they win in other countries. That will help the image of their country.” Referring to the MMA’s statements about marathons promoting “obscenity and nudity,” Karachi’s FM89 breakfast voice, Sohail Hashmi said, “We shouldn’t be covering ourselves up, we should be cleaning our minds.”

Perhaps in other parts of the world, Chief Minister Elahi’s speech – which referred to Lahore as Pakistan’s richest city in terms of culture and a city of sports, its Sufi tradition that promotes love, and dialogue being the path forward – would have been regarded as over-the-top political rhetoric that bore no relevance to a marathon. Not so in Pakistan. In other parts of the world, marathons are an excuse for a family day out and an acid test for true healthniks. In Pakistan, however, the word has sparked violence and debate (not all of it intelligible) about the priorities of activists, what Islam allows, civil liberties, women’s rights and the government’s commitment to enlightened moderation. Set in this context, Elahi uttered fighting words and the day of the marathon was to be a showcase of the government of the Punjab’s commitment to enlightened moderation.

Keeping in mind the leaders of Pakistan’s civil society who, in 2005, criticised the government for its lack of commitment to protect civil liberties, I approached Hina Jilani, (HRCP vice-chairperson, Punjab). Did she view the 2006 marathon as a victory for civil liberties? “It’s not a victory for anyone because the government is unpredictable,” said Ms Jilani. “Victory comes when governments make public announcements and then have a record that shows their commitment to their statements. What are they showing civil society when civil society organises peaceful collective action and the security forces beat them up?” asked Jilani, referring to the 14 May, 2005, police brutalisation and arrest of peaceful ‘mixed marathon-running’ demonstrators – an event organised by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), following a government decision to hold separate races for men and women, a Punjab government ban on public rallies and the release of MMA activists who were arrested for attacking police and civilians at the 3 April, 2005 Gujranwala mini-marathon. “The fact that they held a mixed marathon this year shows that we were right and that they were wrong for stopping women from running in May. How do they expect to protect a nation when they are flip-flopping on this issue? They are only confusing the nation.”

Clearly, any Chief Minister trying to juggle an ideology of “enlightened moderation” with an active right-wing lobby has their hands full. But with district governments not having the muscle to muster a formidable force of 5,000 police personnel (such as that deployed in Lahore on 29 Jan, 2006, the day of the marathon), and with civil society not knowing whether the police will protect or attack them, it seems as though the only marathon that a citizen in the Punjab can confidently participate in is one in which the Chief Minister and Task Force have a direct hand.

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