‘Mera Jism Meri Marzi’ Should Not Be A Controversial Slogan In Pakistan

Recently we witnessed playwright Khalil ur Rehman Qamar walk out angrily from a panel discussion with Naya Daur’s Managing Editor Ailia Zehra. Apparently, he was furious at somebody’s daring to question the Qur’anic verdict on polygamy. This wasn’t the first time Khalil ur Rahman has behaved disgracefully on a TV show: last year, he had behaved similarly with activist Marvi Sirmed in the context of a discussion on the Aurat March and the slogan – mera jism meri marzi (my body my choice). Both these women are strong independent thinkers and do not need anyone to speak for them. Additionally, issues pertaining to women, their sartorial choices, the decision to bear children or to work, are all best led and addressed by them. Men in such situations should ideally be listening and not dictating. However, this does not mean that men shouldn’t also protest against such shameful behaviour as Khalil ur Rahman’s and not proclaim resoundingly: “not in my name.”

Many Pakistani men may think that the slogan on the body’s autonomy is based on mimicking the West on loose morality. However, just a bit of closer inspection reveals that it is actually an Islamic and ethical ideal. This autonomy goes all the way back to the incident where the Prophet addressed the wandering gaze of his male companion rather than asking the woman to cover up. That incident from Islamic history reveals that women have the right to be free from leering eyes irrespective of their dress choice. This idea was echoed in one of Ardeshir Cowasjee’s columns where he mentioned the fabled story of Lady Godiva and how people hid in their homes out of respect when she rode naked in the streets as part of a price to get a punitive levy lifted from her people. Similarly, American civil rights activist Dick Gregory is quoted as having said, “if I am a woman, walking down the street naked, you still don’t have a right to rape me.” In essence, the best of our values, Islamic and humane, do not harp on the dress codes of women and instead focus on lowering the leering gaze of men.

There is a whole gamut of male Muslim scholarly opinions that affirms the bodily autonomy of women. This includes the likes of al-Tabari, Abu Thawr and al-Muzani for whom women could lead congregational prayers, those like Ibn Arabi for whom the hijab was not required, and those like Abu Hanifa and Ibn Rushd for whom women needed no guardians for marriage. This meant that they did not require male patronage on marriage, that their sartorial choice was theirs alone and that they could assume ritual leadership in spite of men. This gamut of scholars also included those who upheld the reproductive rights of women and those who took a liberal view on sexual expression. For instance, Imam Ghazali argued that women could refuse to bear children to preserve their beauty.  Similarly, Hasan Basri opined that there was no harm in masturbation for women as a deterrent to fornication, just as Ibn Hazm had compiled similar opinions from the Companions in the case of men.

Now, of course, one could argue that it would be better to have opinions on such issues from past women scholars and it is indeed important to unearth their work and highlight it. However, in the absence of such work in a popular format, much of which may have been lost, it is important to listen to the voices of contemporary Muslim women scholars like the legendary amina wadud, Leila Ahmed, Laury Silvers, Kecia Ali and, in the Pakistani context, both Asma Barlas and Riffat Hassan. There is also a whole range of younger powerful Muslim academics like Ayesha Chaudhry and Shehnaz Haqqani, whose work merits attention from both men and women in Pakistan. Men especially need to read this scholarship from women just as they quote male jurists, many of whom, like Imam Shafi, were taught by women scholars, like Sayyida Nafisa (d. 824), in the past. Indeed, Pakistani men know of the stories from Barelvi circles, where Rabia al-Basri is depicted as teaching Hasan al-Basri as his superior in the mystic path towards Allah.

Coming back to Khalil ur Rehman, he and those who share his viewpoint need to understand that women rights activists are not asking for mob justice or mob lynching of catcallers, harassers or rapists. They are asking to change the system that produces such behaviour which emerges from a sense of supreme self-entitlement. Indeed, while rape cases may relatively be few in number, the cases of domestic physical and sexual violence are far too common. This means that young boys have to be raised as equal to young girls without preferential treatment. Additionally, just as we do not condone sexual slavery or concubinage, we can no longer justify blanket polygamy. The very verse of the Qur’an that is quoted to justify polygamy is more nuanced than how it is usually read. See for instance this verse with its “if-then” conditionalities, which can be especially appreciated by computer science students:

IF you fear you might fail to give orphan women their ˹due˺ rights ˹if you were to marry them˺, THEN marry other women of your choice—two, three, or four. But IF you are afraid you will fail to maintain justice, THEN ˹content yourselves with˺ one … (4:3)

To recapitulate, Pakistani men need to stop huffing and puffing and instead start listening, for they are not addressing their wards or subordinates but rather their co-equals in this life and the Hereafter. And when those co-equals assert their right to bodily autonomy, such men simply have to get out of the way of that which has been granted by Allah Himself. In a nutshell, mera jism meri marzi, is less about the “lecherous” West and more about affirming the hallowed values of the cultural and religious heritage of Pakistan.