A woman kidnapped by female seminary students and accused of running a brothel was freed Thursday after a hard-line cleric forced her to repent in public — an episode in vigilante justice that shows the boldness of Islamic extremists in Pakistan.
Students in black burqas had seized the woman and several of her relatives from her home late Tuesday during an anti-vice campaign in the capital, taking the law into their own hands and embarrassing President Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s military-dominated government.
The students are disciples of Abdul Rashid Ghazi, vice principal of the Jamia Hafsa seminary and a cleric at the adjoining Lal Masjid mosque. The mosque has a reputation for preaching hard-line Islam as well as links to an outlawed militant group accused in sectarian attacks on Shiite Muslims.
With no sign of police intervention to force her release, the woman, known as Aunty Shamim, was presented to reporters at the Jamia Hafsa seminary in Islamabad to meet Ghazi’s demand that she stop “spreading obscenity” in return for her freedom.
“I apologize for my past wrongdoing and I promise in the name of God that in future I will live like a pious person,” said Shamim, only her eyes and part of her nose visible beneath an all-enveloping burqa.
However, she said she had “threatened to become a Christian” over her treatment by the students.
“I don’t think Islam allows anyone to beat a woman and drag her through the streets like a dog,” she said, shortly before she was driven home in a car along with her daughter, daughter-in-law and 6-month-old granddaughter.
A recruiting ground for jihadists?
Critics say the government has not lived up to pledges to regulate Pakistan’s thousands of religious schools, even in the capital. Some of the schools promote extremism and are a recruiting ground for jihadists fighting U.S. and NATO forces in neighboring Afghanistan.
The mosque’s students are already occupying Islamabad’s only children’s library in protest at plans to demolish the mosque for illegal encroachment on government land.
On Wednesday, authorities had detained two of the seminary’s female teachers and two male students for warning Islamabad stores not to sell “un-Islamic” music and movies.
The detentions triggered protests by hundreds of stick-wielding students, some of whom commandeered two police vehicles, clubbed a plainclothes officer and seized two policemen. The police detainees and the two officers were released only after hours of negotiations.
The incident has added to the pressures on Musharraf, who faces fierce criticism for suspending Pakistan’s top judge and growing skepticism in the United States—his main sponsor—about his efforts to combat Taliban and al-Qaida militants in the region along the Afghan border.
‘We will act ... if the government does not’
On Wednesday, pro-Taliban militants attacked a northwestern town in revenge for the police shootings of two men accused of trying to recruit teenagers from a nearby school for holy war, while Thursday saw a suicide attack on an army training base in an eastern town that killed one soldier.
The actions of the seminary students in Islamabad is “evidence of growing Talibanization in the country,” the liberal daily paper The News said in an editorial Thursday. “What’s disturbing is that this isn’t happening in some remote tribal region, but in the heart of the federal capital.”
Bint-e-Abdul Waheed, a spokeswoman for the seminary students, said their campaign will continue.
“Shamim has given us information about some places where bad deeds are done. God willing, we will act against them if the government does not,” Waheed said.