“I have settled the matters with my parents and intend to go with them. I [can] be sent with my father, Sheikh Abdul Qayyum, petitioner. I am making this statement with my free consent and will.” This statement was uttered by 26-year-old Uzma Qayyum to the judge in an Islamabad Sessions Court earlier this year. The court proceeding, whose end was marked by these words, had centered on the right of Uzma Qayyum to remain at Jamia Hafsa, a women’s religious seminary affiliated with Islamabad’s Red Mosque. In his petition before the Human Rights Cell of the Supreme Court, Sheikh Abdul Qayyum had alleged that his daughter had been “indoctrinated with extremist ideologies by Maulana Abdul Aziz and his wife Umme-Hassaan,” the leaders of the Red Mosque and Jamia Hafsa, who together command the support of thousands of students, male and female. The pair also have a history of standoffs with the Pakistani military, which conducted a bloody raid on their compound in 2007. A few months before the court announced its judgment in Uzma’s case, Jamia Hafsa had also declared its allegiance to the extremist Islamic State (ISIS).
Uzma Qayyum’s case reveals the heady mixture of empowerment, escape, and militant purpose offered to girls around the world by the all-female cadres of extremist groups. The ironies of the case are worth examining. On one side was Uzma Qayyum, an unmarried Muslim girl, and Jamia Hafsa, a militant religious seminary, together arguing for the right of young women to choose their occupation. On the other stood Uzma’s father and his young attorneys, arguing that, based on Pakistani law and precedent, a court must compel an unmarried woman to return to her father’s custody, since he is, under Islamic law, her legal guardian.
This story is based on my conversations with the attorneys, Muhammad Haider Imtiaz and Owais Awan, and Sheikh Abdul Qayyum.
The Red Mosque
In the final days of 2014, the murder of almost 150 schoolchildren in Peshawar sat heavily on a grieving Pakistan. On December 16, a Tuesday, seven gunmen cut through a wire fence that enclosed the grounds of the Army Public School and Degree College and began killing students and teachers. The siege of the school lasted for hours, and Pakistan, courtesy of its many 24-hour news channels, watched in horror as events unfolded live. In the days that followed, the small coffins of schoolchildren would be an admonition against apathy, and an accusation against ordinary Pakistanis who had looked away for far too long, allowing their children to become the targets of terrorists. Within hours, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan took credit for the attack, while the rest of the country, its politicians and public figures, issued condemnations.
One cleric, however, refused to join that chorus: Maulana Abdul Aziz, the leader of the Red Mosque, which was established in Islamabad in 1965 and has a fraught history. Founded by Qari Abdullah, Maulana Abdul Aziz’s father, the mosque was a transit point for foreign jihadists on their way to Afghanistan in the 1980s. In 1998, Qari Abdullah was assassinated just after he’d established Jamia Hafsa, with separate facilities for boys and girls. The mosque is a kilometer from the headquarters of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency and the diplomatic enclave. In the summer of 2007, it became the site of a military operation, after the maulana’s followers barricaded themselves inside and refused to let state authorities in. That standoff, and the ensuing massacre led by the Pakistani military, called Operation Silence, contributed to the fall of Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s administration. At least 58 people died, both soldiers and madrassa students, and Maulana Abdul Aziz became a household name.