The Jinnah Family Park was a rare recreational area reserved for women and girls in Pakistan's conservative northwestern city of Bannu.
But following protests by Islamists and religious leaders, who alleged the park was "spreading obscenity and vulgarity," authorities in the city of around 1 million people have closed off the area.
The decision has triggered an uproar among women, who say the move is illegal and are calling on the authorities to fend off pressure from hard-line clerics.
Observers say the move is part of a broader push by Islamists for Talibanization, a term denoting growing Islamic fundamentalism in Muslim-majority Pakistan inspired by the Taliban’s extremist rule in neighboring Afghanistan.
"This is an inhuman and unconstitutional act," Natasha Suman, a local activist and lawyer, told RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal.
"No one can restrict our movement," added Suman, noting that the Pakistani Constitution allows freedom of movement for all citizens.
Female activists say only women, girls, and young children entered the park. Boys over the age of 12 were not permitted. Activists also say that all female visitors observed the hijab or all-encompassing burqa, in line with conservative Islamic traditions.
Authorities closed the park on August 23, two days after Islamic leaders and clerics held protests in the city. Thousands of demonstrators flooded the streets, paralyzing parts of the city. The protests were led by Maulana Abdul Ghaffar, a local religious leader.
The protests came a week after photos emerged on social media of burqa-clad women lining outside the packed Jinnah Family Park to celebrate Independence Day on August 14, drawing the ire of conservatives.
Soon after, Ghaffar formed a 32-member committee made up of clerics and members of Jamiat Ulema-e Islam (JUI), an Islamist political party, to lobby authorities to permanently close the park. The mayor of Bannu, Irfanullah Durrani, is a member of the JUI.
Military authorities in Bannu closed the park following talks with the committee on August 23.
The Jinnah Family Park is located in an army cantonment, a part of the city that is administered by the military. The park was opened to the public several years ago.
The move has appalled female politicians and activists.
"We don't want to allow anyone to take away our rights by accusing women of spreading obscenity," says Syeda Yasmin Safdar, a member of the secular Pakistan Peoples Party in Bannu.
Safdar says the Jinnah Family Park was a much-needed public space for women in the densely populated city. The park is ringed by high concrete walls topped by barbed wire, hiding female visitors from public view.
Sadfar says if clerics had concerns over intruders entering the premises or women at the park being visible to the public then authorities should have addressed those issues instead of closing off the area.
Ihtesham Afghan, a political activist in Bannu, says the campaign to close the women's park is part of a concerted effort by Islamists to emulate the Taliban's harsh policies in Afghanistan.
Since seizing power in August 2021, the Afghan Taliban has severely curtailed women’s rights, barring teenage girls from school, barring most women from work, and imposing restrictions on their freedom of movement.
"Whatever happens in Afghanistan directly impacts Khyber Pakhtunkhwa," said Afghan, referring to the northwestern Pakistani province that borders Afghanistan. "We are afraid that Bannu is now in the crosshairs of Talibanization."
The park closure comes as fighters belonging to the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militant group return to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which includes Bannu, amid peace talks with Islamabad. Parts of the province are former TTP strongholds.
The TTP, which has close ideological and organizational ties to the Afghan Taliban, has been waging a deadly insurgency against the Pakistani state since 2007 that has killed tens of thousands of people.
The TTP once controlled large swaths of the mountainous areas bordering Afghanistan. During its brutal rule, the militants imposed their extremist version of Islam on the local population, severely curbing freedoms and rights, including those of women.
A major Pakistani military offensive drove the militants across the border to Afghanistan in 2014.
Residents of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have staged a series of protests in recent weeks to voice their opposition to the return of TTP fighters and urge the authorities to prevent the growing Talibanization in the province.