Monday, September 5, 2016


Two young women in Lahore for the first time went the inner city to visit the Fakir Khana. With time to kill they decided to walk around the bazaar. Equipped with dupattas and wearing them too although without covering their hair, and wearing long sleeved knee length kurtas etc as well, they were as respectable (coming from my perspective) as anyone could wish.  Yet while they were walking along enjoying their surroundings a woman came up to them and told them off for not draping their dupattas over their heads.
Here’s the other side of the burkini wars, an issue that gets up people’s noses on either side of the fence, as well it should. Aren’t the two so similar: criticising or abusing a woman for not covering herself to the extent of someone else’s idea of sufficient… and criticising or abusing her for covering herself exceeding someone else’s idea of sufficient? Both actions are dictatorial, both disregard the fact that an adult woman is able to think and act for herself, and both fail to perceive…or perhaps they ignore the fact that respect for a woman has as much to do with attitudes amongst both men and women as with the dress a woman wears or does not wear. Above all it fails to recognise the fact that a woman’s body is hers, in exactly the same way as men lay claim to their bodies.
The French have tried to encourage a secular society. A French law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols therefore bans the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols (such as a Muslim hijab, the Sikh turban and Jewish kippah) in French public, that is in government operated primary and secondary schools. One can perceive if not agree with where the French are coming from if you think of the Urdu idiom ‘na rahay baans na bajay bansuri’ …no bamboo, no (playing of the) flute, and apply it to the French trying to prevent religious discord by suppressing all visual reminders of religious diversity. They clearly failed to appreciate that suppression never works, that on the contrary it causes the suppressed thing to erupt eventually, perhaps elsewhere, in more unwelcome ways. Imagine Marie Antoinette trying to conceal the opulence of her castle by plastering the outside with mud hoping that La Guillotine would not perceive the cake being eaten within. Well La Guillotine was sharp enough to perceive the cake being liberally consumed within the castle. It also noted that only bread was being consumed on the outside and that too when and if available which was not often. So there is no doing away with religious diversity, it will reveal itself come what may. Enforcement of the French law aiming to suppress religious diversity has brought it more sharply into focus than if those women wearing burkinis on the beach had simply been allowed to get on with wearing them and go home in due course. Although the court subsequently overturned the burkini ban it was not before the incidents forcing women to remove their burkinis managed to divide the government over the issue, made France unpopular, and created a furor across the world.
Where, you wonder is the difference between a woman being forced to cover her hair or her body, and a woman being forced to uncover it? Either way it objectifies her. And how does covering or not covering contribute to the presence of morality or to its absence, or to the prevalence or absence of the unwelcome consequences of diversity?  In Pakistan where women dress conservatively there is no lack of ‘eve-teasing’ and Pakistani society is rife with crime against women. And while it is true that religious discrimination too is rife in Pakistan it is also very prevalent in France judging by sentiments that have surfaced in recent events.
Some of the same people who enthusiastically criticise the French for forcefully removing burkinis are happy when their own society coerces women into donning the scarf or abaya. On the other hand people who criticise Muslim women for wearing scarves, and criticise their families for forcing them into those scarves (which is not always why Muslim women wear scarves), those same people were quite okay with these garments being forcefully removed. Respect for women? Is either example respectful of women in any way, or non-discriminatory gender wise or with regards to religion?
It is generally society that pressurises women to cover their hair or bodies, although there are also individuals who are responsible for the pressure. The greater majority of women however adopt those garments because, right or wrong, they believe in wearing them. There are countless young girls who wear the hijab while their parents deplore it and vice versa.
People base their actions on the ‘’I am right, you are wrong’’ argument. It is this attitude that needs to be changed, not the clothing. Also, the ability to analyze a problem and study it from either side needs to be fostered. The ‘I am right, they are wrong’ teachings can be severely discouraged in mosques and schools, while the ability to look at a problem and perceive it from either side should be encouraged via education by instituting debate as a compulsory subject. There ought to be no fear of children learning the ‘wrong’ values as a result. Children learn what they are taught at home, and as a result of the lessons home and society place before them. If these are well presented encouraging them to perceive both sides of the argument can only foster tolerance and empathy leading to a better world peopled by kinder human beings, human beings who try to work for the betterment of their own people and others, men, women and children.

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