More and more does one now hear about incidents and tales where young urban women are being asked by total strangers to ‘dress properly’ or more so, wear a dupatta over their heads or observe hijab.
The Taliban asking CD and barber shop owners to shut down or get blown away is a separate story. Because men asking women to dress properly in cities like Karachi and Lahore are not exactly your shaggy mountain men with guns. They are urbanites living and working in the big cities as shop keepers, taxi drivers, office workers, etc. So what is this bug that has suddenly bitten them, making them walk up to unrelated young women with advice and a lecture on dressing?
To begin with, they are doing this because they know that nine out of 10 women will just shy away or remain quiet instead of either telling the guy off by asking him to simply mind his own business, or, if he is coming on too strongly, slap him! I asked some young women what they would do if they came across such self-righteous lunatics rolling out tips on Islamic fashion. They said they were scared of this trend and would simply avoid the situation. But why wouldn’t you tell the guy off, I asked them?
No answer. They looked at me as if it was I who was missing the point. They wanted me to realise that such men were violent and could attack them. Hardly. Like I said, these are not stone-headed shaggy men from the mountains. They are as much plastic and grey concrete as any one of us Pakistani urbanites; the only difference is they’ve caught on to a new faith game.
One must remember, ever since a section of the urban Pakistani society rose up in 1976-77 in the name of Nizam-i-Mustafa, Pakistanis have been playing one faith game after another. The more dangerous ones were played by the state during the so-called Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union and then, when we so merrily gave suzerain birth to the Taliban, so much so that much of these more hazardous faith games have become a nightmare for — take your pick — barbers, CD shop owners, female students, men in mosques, cops, security men, politicians et al.
Obviously, such games also have a trickle down effect. Because there are also men in the cities who aren’t big and shaggy enough to participate in the deadly faith games of the big boys, so they start their own version of the games. These games also give them the holy excuse to talk to the kind of women they would otherwise never be able to without being either snubbed or slapped (by other men)!
But the million dollar question is why do most educated, independent minded, young Pakistani urban women not respond the way they should to a pansy faith gamer? He may be all loud and oh-so-authoritative sounding, but believe me, the guy’s a pansy. My friend Sanwal believes that women facing such a man should just slap him. I agree with him. And he has a simple but potent insight into why most Pakistani women just keep quiet. He says one has to believe in something strongly to respond as strongly. So true.
Women of Karachi and Lahore take their freedoms for granted. But they’ve never been reflective about it, and hardly any one of them can describe the political or social essence of this freedom. That is, the freedom whether to wear a burqa or not. So when this freedom is challenged, they’re all at sea. They never fought for it and have no clue how to defend it.
So is it correct then to assume that if the number of pansy faith gamers in the cities increases, most Pakistani women who do not wear a burqa would just buckle up, fold in and disappear from the bazaars, offices and shopping malls? I think so. In fact I believe the disappearing act has begun to a degree. The poor (metaphorically speaking), harassed ladies have no idea how to fight back. They have no idea what this freedom really means. And anyway, like most Pakistanis, educated or otherwise, young or old, these women too are suckers for frauds pulled in the name of the faith.
I’ll like to cynically sign off by sharing a related incident I was told by a friend. She told me this terrible story about one of her cousins being robbed by dacoits in their house in Karachi’s Gulshan area. The punks just barged in, tied up the family at gunpoint and stole everything worth anything in that house. But — wait for this — my friend then suddenly changed her tone to tell me this: The harassing, barging, uncouth, gun-trotting brutes, after stealing everything, asked the ladies to ‘wear a dupatta in the presence of strangers!’
My friend actually found this rather charming. Why? ‘Because this made them look human.
Human? How about harassing, uncouth, gun-trotting dacoits and hypocrites?