Why are ‘bold’ women seen as a threat?
Shabana Mahfooz questions the moral police that is quick to judge women for their clothing, but remains least concerned about men’s lifestyle or dressing.
As another year has advanced into the 21st century, some Muslim countries of the world seemed to have plunged back in the dark ages. By refusing to allow their younger generation to step into moderation and progress, they make it appear that Islam is biased against women.
In Pakistan, a strong blow to a steadily increasing awareness and boldness among women was the cancellation of the first women’s bicycle rally scheduled to take place in Peshawar, the provincial capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). As part of a peace rally, a local women’s rights organisation had included at least 35 women bicycle riders to participate. However, religious parties threatened to stage a protest, afraid that the rally “is spreading obscenity”.
While KP is known in the country for its relatively more conservative and traditional environment, elsewhere in the metropolitan cities of Pakistan, women – nevertheless in small numbers, have taken to riding bicycles and motor bikes as an answer to inadequate public transport facilities. And apart from being limited, using means of public transport like buses and cabs pose a greater risk to women of inconvenience and sexual harassment by molesting commuters or drivers. Women who ride their own bikes, donning a helmet, are a symbol of confidence and independence and hardly a vision of obscenity.
But in Peshawar, right-winged leaders could not bear the sight of women single handedly operate a basic means of transportation for creating rights awareness.
Meanwhile, a higher educational institution in Islamabad, the country’s capital, had issues with women’s dress code.
Bahria University in Islamabad recently informed its female students through social media that they will be fined Rs 5,000 if they wear “jeans, tights, trousers or short shirts”. Apparently, the only acceptable dress code is “shalwar (tunic) with a long shirt and a mandatory dupatta (scarf)”.
In the past, the university has enforced similar discriminatory rules barring female students from using all food outlets except a cafeteria at the campus.
Although in Pakistan, the state does not define any regulation for dress code of its citizens, ethnicity, and tradition and to quite some extent, conservative thoughts prompt most women to step out in clothes that fully cover their limbs. The ‘consciousness’ of this act is also a spillover of a decade old period during the late 70s and mid 80s, when military dictator General Zia ul Haq imposed strict regulations on the lifestyles, businesses, professions and dress codes of Pakistani citizens, in largely his interpretation of Shariah. Nevertheless, today in the urban centres of Pakistan, it is not uncommon to see women dressed in western clothes or contemporary eastern wear, often without a scarf. For an educational institution to impose a dress code for its adult female students which is also probably, in stark contrast to their public life, is definitely a violation of their right of freedom.
That was the case when another university in Faisalabad of Pakistan’s central province, Punjab announced that it will celebrate ‘Sister’s Day’ on February 14 instead of Valentine’s Day! The institute distributed scarf, shawls and gowns among female students on the day. Shouldn’t the same day be celebrated as ‘Brother’s Day’ as well, where prayer caps, rosaries and shawls could be distributed among male students?
But while these institutions exercised their authorities on their home ground, a similar varsity in Egypt went beyond its domain and arguably, interfered in the private life of one of its students.
Al-Azhar University, a branch of Egypt’s highest Sunni Muslim authority, reportedly expelled a female student after a video showing her hugging a man went viral on social media. Egypt is a Muslim-majority country and propagates largely conservative values.
In what appears to be a marriage proposal, a young man hugs the girl in elation at the campus of a university – other than Al-Azhar. However, Al-Azhar University justified its decision to expel the student by claiming that her actions had “undermined the school’s reputation”. The young man was expected to face sanctions by his own university.
What is common in all the incidents quoted above, is that Muslim women are singularly the recipient of moral policing. For the religious leaders in Peshawar, men stooping low and possibly wearing shorts to ride bikes is not obscene, but a fully clad woman is. In Islamabad’s varsity, boys sporting slim pants or fitted shirts do not seem to offend authorities, but girls do. In Faisalabad, the ‘evils’ of a global festival seem to corrupt only the naïve minds of females, who are hence on the receiving end of ‘appropriate’ garb. And in Cairo, a spontaneous expression of joy prompted by a man, is sinful only for a woman.
So when those not familiar with the teachings of Islam react by deploring Muslims’ biased attitude towards their women, why do the die hard practitioners of the world’s second largest religion retort back? It is the lack of understanding of their own religion and narrow mindedness which results in them taking discriminatory decisions, for Islam has provided laws equal for both men and women.