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Home > fundamentalism / shrinking secular space > Pakistan: THE FEMALE BODY POLITIC


Thursday 3 March 2022, by siawi3



Nadeem F. Paracha

Published February 27, 2022 - Updated a day ago

Illustration by Abro

The federal Religious Affairs minister, Pir Noor-ul-Haq Qadri, wrote a letter to PM Imran Khan, asking him to ban this year’s ‘Aurat March’ and declare March 8 as ‘Hijab Day.’

Hot on Qadri’s heels was Abdul Majeed Hazarvi, of the opposition Islamist party the Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam. He warned that his party would stop the Aurat March ‘with a baton.’

Both gentlemen are trying to outdo each other in positing themselves as the great saviours of Pakistani women who, according to them, are being led astray by their ‘Westernised’ and ‘liberal’ sisters in rejecting ‘Islamic’ customs and commands.

They believe that Aurat March, which is held every year on International Women’s Day, promotes ‘obscenity’, and is an attack on displays of modesty which Islam prescribes for women.

Hijab means a lot more than a headscarf. That’s why it is applicable to men as well. Of course, men such as Qadri and Hazarvi often ignore this. There is no widespread consensus among Islamic scholars on exactly what kind of a garment best exhibits the nature of modesty prescribed by Islam.

The key concept in the sacred literature is of modesty. According to the Islamic scholar Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, this modesty has to do with how a person conducts himself or herself in the presence of others, more than it being just about what he or she wears.

The hijab is more than a headscarf. It is applicable to men as well as women. But increasingly, the female body in the Muslim world has become a battleground on which wars of political and cultural dominance are being fought

It means being respectful, humble, considerate and civilised. As Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the 19th century South Asian intellectual and Muslim reformer insisted, Islam postulates itself as a civilised way of life that eschews arrogance, greed, lust, and exhibitionism.

Unfortunately, the idea of modesty, in this context, has been reduced to being about a piece of garment for women. More disconcerting though is how this garment has become politically weaponised. The female body in the Muslim world has become a battleground on which wars of political and cultural dominance are fought. The issue is thus larger than being just about a garment that women are free to wear or discard.

In her book A Quiet Revolution, the Egyptian scholar of Islam Leila Ahmed writes that, by the early 1960s, veiling in Muslim-majority regions had greatly receded. In most Muslim regions, when women began to increasingly enrol in educational institutions or began to join the national workforce, they, by choice, started to discard the ‘cumbersome’ veil.

In some regions, however, the pattern of unveiling was coerced. In the early 20th century, the state in countries such as Turkey, Albania, Afghanistan and Iran, women were actively encouraged to discard veiling, terming it a symbol of regression.

According to the Turkish author Alev Cinar, the female body in this context served to reset the boundaries of the public and the private. Cinar is of the view that the state in countries such as Turkey brought into public what was private, and relegated to the private sphere what was once expected in the public realm. The female body was often used to exhibit this. For example, images of veiled women began to vanish, replaced by images of unveiled women, mostly in Western attire.

The female body began to be imagined as the national body, liberated from the clutches of obscurantism, outdated traditions and regressive practices. Yet, as mentioned, there were modern Muslim-majority regions during the same period that saw increasing levels of unveiling without any state coercion or propaganda.

In countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Pakistan, the unveiling process was almost entirely the decision of women, for the reasons already stated.

But whereas certain Muslim states had weaponised unveiling as a way to erode the influence of their Islamist opponents, the Islamists retaliated by weaponising it through movements of re-veiling.

According to Leila Ahmed, this earnestly began in Egypt in the mid-1970s. On the one hand, some Muslim states in the early- and mid-20th century had imagined the female body as the national body that needed to be liberated. On the other hand, according to Cinar, the Islamists began to envisage the female body as the site from which to articulate their Islamic revivalist project.

During campaigns which first emerged on university campuses, Islamists began by distributing veiling garments to young women, claiming that they were liberating them (and thus the national body) from the ‘oppressive’ and ‘enslaving’ ways of Westernisation and modernity.

Policies of economic modernisation in the 1950s and 1960s had attracted the influx of millions of migrants from rural areas to urban centres in Muslim countries. The migrants, initially disoriented by the permissive ethos of the cities, became a powerful constituency of the Islamists. To them, veiling became a symbol of identity (largely enforced by men) as a way to actually alter the ethos of the cities, according to the political, social and cultural disposition of these men.

The re-veiling trend then rapidly started to make its way into the middle classes. It also began being adopted by the Muslim diaspora in the West, who used it during the ‘cultural wars’ that are raging there on matters of race, gender and faith. This is when the hijab truly became prominent.

Indeed, a lot of women practise veiling as a personal choice. Yet, it is men, embroiled in a political battle, supposedly between modernity and ‘tradition’, who are using veiling and the female body to establish cultural and political hegemonies.

However, during events such as the Aurat March, it is the women who come out to decide the fate and status of their own bodies. That is why such marches have also increasingly witnessed the presence of veiled or hijab-clad women.

But men such as Qadri, Hazarvi, and sometimes even PM Khan, are still imagining the female body as a national body that needs to be protected (by men) with layers of garments, apparently designed to protect them from various manifestations of the male gaze.

These manifestations are conveniently explained as consequences of ‘vulgarity’ being imported from the ‘shameless West.’ This is nothing more than an apologia for male deviancies.

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 27th, 2022