Tales Of A Scarf

Tales Of A Scarf
Imaan Mazari says Minister Shireen Mazari's decision to cover her head with a Hijab in Iran should have been respected back home. Instead, people went out of their way to mock her for her decision to respect the law of a country hosting her.

It wasn’t too long ago that the Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Adern took upon her head a light scarf while grieving with her Muslim citizens in the aftermath of the terrorist attack in her country. The images of Adern gave many hope in humanity and leadership – such a poignantly captured image of compassion and strength in the face of such grave loss. Pakistanis too were blown away by this incredible gesture. But in a matter of weeks, our hypocrisy on this front, too, was exposed.

Recently, Prime Minister Imran Khan set off for Iran with a delegation that comprised inter alia of the Minister for Human Rights, Shireen Mazari. As per the law of Iran, women must cover their heads with a scarf. Whether this law is just or unjust, or whether it should be challenged or complied with is a subject of debate for another day. However, as part of an official delegation, Mazari, too, had to comply with this law.

Of course, social media had a field day: memes, mockery and allegations of “hypocrisy” galore for the entirety of the delegation’s visit. It is almost as if no one had ever seen Mazari cover her head before (which she has in fact done on numerous occasions: during recitals from the Holy Quran; when she went to visit the children that had survived the APS massacre in Peshawar; and even when she spends time in certain parts of conservative South Punjab). But does any of this even matter? Not really, and here’s why the emphasis on it is so problematic.

First, it is beyond comprehension why discussion of a woman’s attire, in and of itself, remains central to politics and society. One is reminded of the two juxtaposed images of a woman being forced to wear a scarf (with the caption “put it on, temptress”) and another being forced to remove her scarf (with the caption “take it off, terrorist”).

In the year 2019, we still have a long way to go in coming to terms with the fact that how women choose to dress (wearing less or more) is no one’s business but theirs. But of course, this policing of women’s attire is not limited to Pakistan – such policing on grounds of “national security” or “fraternity/community living” prevails in certain European States as well.

It would have been very different if Mazari covering her head had sparked a debate in Pakistan about whether laws that mandate a dress code or prohibit one are valid laws. Similarly, it would have been different, and even interesting, if Mazari covering her head had pushed people to talk about ideas of Madina ki Riyasat floating around in Pakistan, and how much space exists between us and the religious influence on law and society in countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia (or other Muslim societies for that matter). But true to our general mentality that chooses the trivial over significant, these were not issues that we were bothered enough to discuss.

None of the aforementioned debates were even remotely triggered (strange considering how bothered so many were by the act of Mazari covering her head with a piece of cloth). The entire substance of discussion was focused on one of two points, at any given stage. One, that Mazari is a hypocrite for covering her head in Iran but not in Pakistan (since both are Islamic countries). A rather stupid contention considering Pakistani law does not require women to cover their heads (thank God). Moreover, Mazari could hardly have breached the law of a country where she was invited as a guest, as part of a delegation. Second, there was crude mockery of her appearance (shocker!). A Pakistani woman being targeted for how she looks: nothing new but perhaps increasingly disgusting and indigestible.

Second, Pakistanis, as a society, continuously expose their hypocrisy in the strangest of ways. Let us begin from the broader example of religious persecution. We are so quick to condemn mistreatment of Muslims in non-Muslim countries but fail to recognize our own barbaric laws that serve as death sentences for minorities.

In the same vein, we were so quick to applaud Adern for her compassion but ensured that we went out of our way to mock a sitting cabinet member for her decision to respect the law of a country hosting her. Adern’s taking of the scarf was grounded in empathy while Mazari’s was grounded in respect.

So why then is applause reserved for the white woman donning an item of clothing close to the hearts of some Muslims while a brown woman doing the same out of respect for her Muslim hosts and their law worthy of condemnation?

Lastly, till when will societies, not just Pakistani society but Muslim and non-Muslim societies alike, continue to regulate female attire (through requiring women to be covered up, or prohibiting them from, for instance, wearing a veil or a burkini)? A woman in Pakistan faces many compulsions that women in other parts of the world (particularly the West) do not, specifically in the form of warped conceptions of religion and morality that seek to regulate everything concerning a woman’s life.

Kahlil Gibran beautifully wrote, in The Prophet: “And though you may seek in garments the freedom of privacy you may find in them a harness and a chain”. Isn’t it ultimately for women to decide whether a particular garment is something worth wearing to them? Isn’t it only appropriate that a woman decide whether she wants to wear a bikini or a burkini at the beach considering it is her body that will be clothed accordingly?

And why does society at large continue to make decisions for women (who ought to be able to make those decisions at an individual level) as to what “preserves” their “modesty”, or what “empowers” them? Maybe this writer is too idealistic but the two very different tales of a scarf illustrate society’s problem with women’s agency vis-à-vis their clothing – and it is about time we identify that the problem does not lie in what we, as women, choose to wear but in the perception that women’s clothing ought to be regulated or subject to society’s whims.

The writer is a lawyer.