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Beyond The Veil – A Response To Imaan Mazari’s Defense Of Shireen Mazari

Afiya Shehrbano Zia in this article has responded to Imaan Zainab Mazari-Hazir’s defence of Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari’s use of ‘veil’ during a recent official visit to Iran. Read Imaan Mazari’s article here.

Imaan Mazari-Hazir’s critical commentary on Pakistani politics is an important intervention precisely because she is the daughter of Shireen Mazari, the current Minister for Human Rights. This is not the first time that we have witnessed the classic unease that has characterised mother-daughter relations in Pakistan’s political leadership but historically, these have been private in nature and hidden from public discourse. The fact that the Mazaris publicise their political-personal differences is both admirable and educational.

Imaan’s recent article defends Shireen Mazari by legitimately objecting to the manner she was mocked by some Pakistani observers for observing the veil during an official visit to Iran. But Imaan also misses the opportunity to address some genuine contradictions that this poses for feminist politics.

I agree that the veil is the most over-discussed piece of wardrobe but this does not make it insignificant to those who observe it and nor is it some neutral symbol. There is no such thing as an empty signifier – denoting either class, gender or religious affiliation.

First, the title of Imaan’s article (Tales of a Scarf) underplays the subject – even though it is a common translation, a scarf is quite different from a veil or hejab, burqa, kerudung, niqab and so on. The key differences are usually historic and contextual – some are indigenous while other forms are borrowed or adopted from the Middle East as part of a recent wave of Islamic revivalism (an example of the latter is ‘the hejab’ for Pakistan). The point being that those who wish to sound politically correct and wax on about refuting “binaries” miss the point that, many observing women claim their specific form of veiling as a deliberate and distinct identity marker.

Different forms of veiling denote deeper and important identity differences and yes, policing dress is unacceptable but at the same time, to render the veil as a ‘trivial’ piece of cloth is to deny its practitioners who say that it gives them agency, or the social and religio-cultural relevance that it symbolises. In my observations, no matter how subversively or creatively it may be practised, the veil remains part of a patriarchal apparatus and benefits the broader patriarchal gendered order.

Secondly, Imaan is correct in pointing out how veiling by white women, such as PM Adern, (but also Jemima Goldsmith, Yvonne Ridley or any new convert) tends to be celebrated by Muslims but brown women’s decisions to veil or unveil is constantly subjected to criticism.

But Imaan misses the chance to make the point that the colour of the observing woman is not as relevant as the context that allows a woman to choose. She says her mother had to respect Iran’s law but what if Bushra Imran were to visit France on some official trip – would we be equally agreeable that the first lady must respect the French ban on the niqab and unveil herself in respect of that?[1]

More likely, we would object to it as an Islamophobic compulsion – a cause that the PTI government likes to score point over. So, is it not equally appropriate to object to the Iranian compulsory dress code and, what would be the right word to refer to this religious imposition?

Third, Imaan is also correct that social media discussion should have focussed on the comparative laws of the host country that forces women to veil but affords choice in the case of Pakistan.

She may be right to thank divine intervention for that but should also have acknowledged the historic role of direct resistance by the women’s movement in Pakistan against the attempted imposition of the dress code by Zia Ul Haq. In other words, choice has to be fought for by resistance not compliance and legalised rather than just presumed to be heaven-sent or commonsensical.

There is the thorny question of whether pre-modern religious laws can, by definition, be non-patriarchal but that is a longer debate. A more important paradox is Imaan’s expectation of social media as a platform for serious political exchange. We defended the use of hashtags, memes, and humour for the MeToo and Aurat March campaigns, as tools to subvert sexist attitudes by explaining that these are more emotive than long theoretical theses. So, we are admitting that the tool of social media is not conducive to much more than one-liners, gifs or repartees rather than a site for long-form, deeper analytical debates.

Then the final and most critical omission in Imaan Mazari-Hazir’s piece; presumably, Shireen Mazari participated in the official visit in her capacity as the Human Rights Minister, so why does Imaan’s article fail to address which rights-based issues of mutual interest were discussed during the visit?

Clearly, Minister Mazari did not discuss her concern over the 20-year sentences being given to defiant Iranian women who have been unveiling in public places as part of their anti-hejab movement over the past 2 years. So, what were the shared bilateral views on women’s rights, enforced disappearances, political dissent, scholars at risk, journalistic freedoms and the state of religious minorities on which both the countries do not share enviable records? Yes, we must defend Mazari’s or any woman’s sartorial choice but it is also our responsibility to regulate their claim to represent our broader rights in the same breath.

[1] Interestingly, if Bushra Imran were to visit Iran in her white veil it may be taken as symbolic of the anti-hejab movement called My Stealthy Freedom which encourages its supporters to wear white veils to show their opposition to the mandatory forced veiling code.


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