Confessions of a reluctant feminist in Pakistan
Asim Ghani is a senior Pakistani journalist, a close friend, and a lurker on
this list. He works for the Karachi newspaper The Daily Times where he wrote
the attached piece.
Interesting reading in context of Pakistan's recent election victory of the
pro-Taliban forces in the northern province bordering Afghanistan.
Confessions of a reluctant feminist
By Asim Ghani
The Daily Times, Karachi.
A newspaper letter-writer recently voiced alarm at the prospect of Maulana
Fazlur Rahman becoming prime minister. He said hed emigrate to Papua New
Guinea if that happened. Since then there has been a spate of similar
letters. Qazi Husain Ahmads statement last Sunday that the Muttahida
Majlis-e-Amal would abolish coeducation can make you wonder if its really
time to leave this country.
The most striking thing in the Qazis speech, at an MMA womens convention
in Peshawar, is not so much this threat, as the fact that he doesnt know
what hes talking about. We will set up separate universities for girls,
he declared; the same, needless to say, goes for schools and colleges. He
promised vocational training centres exclusively for women. Qazi Husain
Ahmad must have worked out the astronomical expenses involved, the planning,
infrastructure and the years and years of completion required, the female
teaching staff that would need to be raised for segregated vocational and
It reminds me of a news item a few weeks ago, on a decision in the NWFP, the
Qazis home province, to convert all government schools into English-medium
schools. And who will teach all the subjects in English, as well as the
Staff who will have received six months training in Peshawar. For some
reason he left unexplained, he wants the NWFP Governors House and Frontier
House, the chief ministers residence, turned into educational institutions;
for girls and women, lets assume, because of the high walls of the
And thats the leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Pakistans best-organized
political party. Hes vice president of the MMA, some of whose important
figures are claiming the alliances unforeseen success in the elections has
given it a popular mandate to rule Pakistan.
But something clearly slipped the Qazis mind in the heat of rhetoric.
He pledged that women would have equal opportunities and there will be no
job restrictions on them. (Thank goodness!) In addition, women will be
provided a conducive atmosphere in which to work with dignity. If you
carry his philosophy on female education to its logical conclusion, doesnt
it follow that, if women are to work with dignity, workplaces will be
For women (indeed, for anyone) dignity is synonymous with equalitycomplete
equality, it should be emphasized here, since womens status and rights are
under discussion. But in wide areas of the NWFP we saw a different dignity
in action on Oct. 10. Women, including innumerable in the city of Peshawar
itself, were strictly prohibited from voting, the prevention involving
threatened draconian measures in the tribal areas even against any male who
dared to help a woman go to a polling station. The Jamaat leader, who
immediately after the elections had sworn to have the heads of the
daughters of the nation covered, came up with a tardy criticism of this; it
was, he said in his speech, wrong.
How many MMA legislators-elect in the NWFP kept their wives, daughters,
mothers and sisters from voting is an interesting moot point. The wrong
happened to be the right thing for the MMA: well never know to what extent
the absence of women voters contributed to its electoral success. (This is
to say nothing of allegations that the MMAs vote bank was swollen by
hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees who had illegally secured Pakistani
national identity cards.)
There will be no restrictions on women, the Qazi went on, but they have
to live in accordance with the teachings of Islam. This but raises a
question: Does it mean men will be free not to follow the teachings?
The MMA will also end honour killings, which the Qazi did condemn as
un-Islamic. Meanwhile, laws will be passed to stop violence against
females and sexual harassment of women. To take only the latter element,
what could be greater sexual harassment than for a woman to be raped and
then be condemned to die for adultery? Zafran Bibi, whose punishment of
being stoned to death was overturned by the Federal Shariat Court in June
amid national and international outrage, was not the only such victim of
Zia-ul-Haqs Zina and Hudood laws. There are a number of rape victims in
prison even now.
But the defence of Zias ultra-obscurantist legislations is an article of
faith with Pakistans religious right. Zafrans case, the Meerawala gang
rape and the forced marriages of eight girls in Abbakhel near Mianwali,
which again caused universal uproar, were met with virtual silence by our
clerics. (It doesnt bear reminding that the annulled marriages of the
girlstwo as young as three and fivehad been duly solemnized by a local
It was a little redundant for the Jamaat leader to give this assurance to
the thousands of burqa-clad women bussed to the convention (whose massive
participation he flaunted as proof of the MMAs popularity among women):
that the MMA wont force them to wear the burqa. Nor would it carry out a
Taliban-style crackdown on women. Lets skip the fact that he isnt known to
have uttered a word of criticism of the Talibans hideous victimization of
women, that the Jamaat and most other parties now in the MMA provided
all-round backing to the militias five-year jihad. Lets recall the
incident in which the Taliban shaved the heads of Pakistani football players
to punish them for turning up in immodest shorts for a match, not in
shalwar. Maulana Fazlur Rahman, the prime ministerial hopeful who is the
unanimous parliamentary leader of all six components of the MMA (as the Qazi
reminded the convention), lauded the abuse.
Again, since his audience were all in burqa, why did Qazi husain Ahmad have
to be behind a curtain? You see, even if he couldnt see the women, they
could have seen him through their veils. But hes one of the most
photographed Pakistani figures these days, and also appears on television,
so they can see his face anyway. It would be silly to say to him, if youre
so punctilious about purdah, why dont you stay away from photographers and
television? However, he could avoid posing for photographs, such as the one
in which, in a show of MMA solidarity, hes linking arms with Maulana Shah
Ahmad Noorani, the president of the transient grouping of disparate
religious parties and factions. Normally he would be loath even to pray
behind the Maulana, a veteran prayer-leader, because he is Barelvi and the
Qazi is Wahabi.
Since the Jamaat leader is an unlikely convert to the idea of equal
opportunities for women, heres a shibboleth to test his earnestness: Is one
woman, or two women, equal to a male witness in testimony?
I dont know how my fellow-alarmists reacted to the Qazis speech. I laughed
out loudparticularly at his addressing women from behind a curtain.