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Confessions of a reluctant feminist in Pakistan

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  • Tarek Fatah
    Friends, 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
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 30, 2002
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      Friends,

      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.

      Tarek Fatah
      -------------------------

      Confessions of a reluctant feminist

      By Asim Ghani
      The Daily Times, Karachi.
      www.dailytimes.com.pk

      A newspaper letter-writer recently voiced alarm at the prospect of Maulana
      Fazlur Rahman becoming prime minister. He said he’d emigrate to Papua New
      Guinea if that happened. Since then there has been a spate of similar
      letters. Qazi Husain Ahmad’s statement last Sunday that the Muttahida
      Majlis-e-Amal would abolish coeducation can make you wonder if it’s really
      time to leave this country.

      The most striking thing in the Qazi’s speech, at an MMA “women’s convention”
      in Peshawar, is not so much this threat, as the fact that he doesn’t know
      what he’s 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
      technical training.

      It reminds me of a news item a few weeks ago, on a decision in the NWFP, the
      Qazi’s home province, to convert all government schools into English-medium
      schools. And who will teach all the subjects in English, as well as the
      language itself?

      Staff who will have received six months’ training in Peshawar. For some
      reason he left unexplained, he wants the NWFP Governor’s House and Frontier
      House, the chief minister’s residence, turned into educational institutions;
      for girls and women, let’s assume, because of the high walls of the
      buildings.

      And that’s the leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Pakistan’s best-organized
      political party. He’s vice president of the MMA, some of whose important
      figures are claiming the alliance’s unforeseen success in the elections has
      given it a popular mandate to rule Pakistan.

      But something clearly slipped the Qazi’s 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, doesn’t
      it follow that, if women are to work “with dignity,” workplaces will be
      segregated too?

      For women (indeed, for anyone) dignity is synonymous with equality—complete
      equality, it should be emphasized here, since women’s 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: we’ll never know to what extent
      the absence of women voters contributed to its electoral success. (This is
      to say nothing of allegations that the MMA’s “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-Haq’s Zina and Hudood laws. There are a number of rape victims in
      prison even now.

      But the defence of Zia’s ultra-obscurantist legislations is an article of
      faith with Pakistan’s religious right. Zafran’s 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 doesn’t bear reminding that the annulled marriages of the
      girls—two as young as three and five—had been duly solemnized by a local
      maulvi.)

      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 MMA’s popularity among women):
      that the MMA won’t force them to wear the burqa. Nor would it carry out a
      Taliban-style crackdown on women. Let’s skip the fact that he isn’t known to
      have uttered a word of criticism of the Taliban’s hideous victimization of
      women, that the Jamaat and most other parties now in the MMA provided
      all-round backing to the militia’s five-year “jihad.” Let’s 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 couldn’t see the women, they
      could have seen him through their veils. But he’s 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 you’re
      so punctilious about purdah, why don’t 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, he’s 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, here’s a shibboleth to test his earnestness: Is one
      woman, or two women, equal to a male witness in testimony?

      I don’t know how my fellow-alarmists reacted to the Qazi’s speech. I laughed
      out loud—particularly at his addressing women from behind a curtain.
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