Broken Promises: The Punjab Women’s Protection Act

It’s a shame, but not much of a surprise, that eight months after the passage of the Punjab government’s Protection of Women Act, it has not yet been implemented. Unfortunately this is illustrative of the fact that when it comes to women’s empowerment, the government talks a good talk, but tangible and measurable follow through is hard to find.

The Act was to base its foundations in a system of Violence Against Women Centers, or VAWCs for short. The VAWCs were envisioned as a one-stop shop where women who suffered domestic violence, rape, or any other kind of assault could come and be treated like humans and survivors instead of animals and criminals. Women could find shelter close to their homes rather than having to go to a bigger city, as VAWCs would be set up in every district in Punjab.

Poor women victims of violence do not have the funds or the freedom to run here and there to get their complaints redressed, their medical and psychological needs attended to, and the legal process streamlined and made easy for them. The VAWCs would provide medical services and on the spot first aid for victims. They could file FIRs and medico-legal statements at an on-site police desk. They could obtain hard-to-find legal and psychological counseling services. A toll-free number provided for complaints and investigation services were also planned to be housed under the VAWC’s roof.

Yet the Bill, passed in February, is still to be “notified” for implementation, whatever that means in the strange language of Pakistan’s bureaucrats and government offices.  Foreign diplomats and the heads of international aid agencies were invited to the groundbreaking ceremony of the first Violence Against Women Center, but today, based on Imran Gabol’s report, we find that the inaugural VAWC, for which Rs. 40 billion were allocated, has yet to be completed, with a projected completion date of December 2016 at the earliest.

Last November, I was in the Hague for a global conference on Women’s Shelters, and I was fortunate enough to interview the renowned lawyer and women’s rights activist Hina Jilani (Asma Jehangir’s sister). We spoke about the VAWC, and she told me she hadn’t even been invited to its inauguration, despite her decades of work in establishing women’s shelters and advocating for the survivors of domestic violence.

She didn’t express much optimism in the government’s ability to actually implement and successfully run a program of this scale. Her doubts seem to have been borne out today, in light of Resident Director of the Aurat (Women) Foundation Mumtaz Mughal’s observations that the Bill can’t truly be implemented until and unless the first VAWC is actually completed. Furthermore, she said the government didn’t have enough funds to establish such costly centers in every district, and that the currently existing Darul Aman shelters were being “upgraded” to fulfill the government’s promise.

This is the problem in Pakistan when it comes to the “uplift” of women. The government promises a lot, but delivers nearly nothing. Even the laws that have been passed for women’s protection come with catches, loopholes, and frankly a lack of willpower to make them strong and active. And the idea of a Protection For Women’s act still remains nascent in the face of the overwhelming belief in Pakistani society that women can and should be beaten and abused in order to keep them in line, in order to maintain a man’s authority, and more than often enough, just because a man feels like it.

This is why in Pakistan we need much independent research on the actual effectiveness of these bills, these acts, these organizations. We cannot trust that the government is doing anything more than floating big ideas that it has no true intention of making reality.

This holds true even in the case of BISP, the Benazir Income Support Program, run by the very capable and hardworking Marvi Memon (a personal childhood friend of mine), which is by all accounts proving successful in giving income support to the poorest women of Pakistan. BISP’s transparency and credibility will be strengthened if there is independent research and assessment conducted by a variety of groups: gender researchers, economic thinktanks, donor agencies, and independent journalists.

For every promise, there needs to be accountability, otherwise we can relegate the Punjab Women’s Protection Act to that stuck drawer where all the other protections promised to Pakistan’s women lie and gather dust.

Tell me I’m Wrong About the Hijab by Maniza Naqvi

One of the biggest mistakes people make when talking about Muslim women, rather than talking to Muslim women, is to assume that Muslim women are all the same, think the same, to ignore the diversity of thought, experience, opinion. Don’t condescend to the women, call them oppressed or slaves. Understand their mindset. So many of them are fiercely intelligent. One of my best students a young woman who covered her face. I struggled all semester but her intelligence still shone through. As for the idea that their voices are missing from public debate, this isn’t true either. They speak, but nobody listens to them. Search out their voices. They are there. Start here:

I found this essay by the Pakistani writer Maniza Naqvi on the hijab very passionately argued and provocative. I’m reproducing it here as a guest post.


I invite you to tell me why I am wrong. I wrote similar post on Facebook and now want to engage you here in this debate. So tell me am I wrong and why.

The issue about the hijab, burka and now burkini is not simply about its presence on the beach or in public institutions and spaces including schools, or about the presence of Islam in public spaces in Europe or about freedom of choice there. The issue is about the hijab, burka and burkini becoming the symbol of Islam and all that there is about Islam. A garment now defines Islam. A cloth, has become Islam. The issue is that modesty and virtue have been reduced to the abundance or lack of abundance of a garment. And that indeed is a shame.

It isn’t that the space for hijabs and niqabs is threated to be reduced. It is Islam that is being reduced. Reduced to a piece of cloth. And who is responsible for this?

Those responsible for doing so are Muslim women who wear it. Indeed it is about misogyny and patriarchy. Those who promote it are women. And they are predominantly articulating themselves to the West. They are reducing themselves, reducing the air around them, the light, the conversation, and they are reducing the faith that they profess to belong to by this reductionist action.

They have reduced Islam to a piece of cloth. There were two American Muslim women who participated in the Olympics and won medals. NBC and the media only played up and focused on one. Yup, the one wearing the hijab. Regularly, those women invited to speak about Muslims or Islam or represent Muslims are wearing hijabs. Those appointed and recruited to police and surveil and provide security duties are in hijab. Why?

Modesty, virtue and religion now symbolized by hijabs, pre-Islamic tribal garb for men and women. So are the women who are Muslim who do not wear this garb, not Muslim? Not modest? Not virtuous?

Is the hijab, burka, niqab, abaya and now the burkini a symbol of Islam and of religion?

Or is it a prop for communicating modesty and religiosity. The women that I know who wear hijabs wear them because they think it’s conveys religion and modesty. All of them are new to wearing the hijab. Most of them have something to hide or to not deal with intellectually. They are hiding, their sense of ugliness, they are hiding aging, they think it’s a way to instantly communicate that they are not only Muslim but also good Muslims, it allows them an easy pass through their neighborhood streets that are controlled by thugs and bullies, they are transmitting a demand or a plea to be treated better or differently than everyone else, they are hiding past bad behavior and keeping that tendency under check. It hides the shame of old clothes and not being able to keep up with the Jones. It helps women emerge from deeply patriarchal and authoritarian relationships and families. Whatever. It hides. There are a myriad of reasons for wearing the hijab. And all of them are deeply lazy and narcissistic.

The niqab deceives. It deceives foremost its wearer. The hijab and the niqab do not relay modesty or humility, they relay the opposite. It is a deeply narcissistic act that screams look at me! Look how different I am. Look how virtuous! I don’t need to do anything else to prove how good and moral I am. It allows a woman to hide her own idol, herself, inside her cover.

So a good Muslim woman wears a hijab or a niqab? Ask these women and push comes to shove they’ll say yes. They will indeed sit in judgement of other Muslim women, who don’t.

The police on the beach gave the woman a ticket and fined her for ‘not respecting good morals and secularism.” Poor putz of a policeman simply carrying out the decree of the Mayor, ends up scribbling and mixing up good morals with secularism. One a religious concept and the other supposedly not. So in doing so the police on the beach in Nice becomes the morality police—which has very little to do with secularism unless secularism in France means being naked. Not everyone being naked. Just women. Preferably only the good bits. Bare breasted women. That’s secularism?

Or did the policeman by writing ‘Not respecting of good morals’ actually inadvertently point to something very basic—a piece of garment is not the symbol of faith nor of goodness. It is in fact the symbol that you are weak of faith and goodness and must cloak yourself.

Nakedness. Nothing to hide. Open societies, bodies and minds. That’s a pretty good definition of morality and secularism isn’t it? Indeed the policeman shames the fully clothed woman, forcing her to take off her covering. Shames her in the name of good morality and secularism and does while being heavily clothed with body armor and had weapons. Did he reach deep inside his intellect and calling upon the entire Western Canon? Canon by the way, I have just learned, comes from the Arabic word, caanoon. Meaning, law. Come to think of it—modesty and morality for the French State is therefore the definition of what the Abrahamic God intended it to be—one where nakedness is the perfect state—and the unease with it—Shame, a crime.

Or does secularism in France mean ‘not Muslim’ Europe is being goaded to turn on itself, divide itself along religious lines. But this is not a fight within Europe. It is a conflict between women and their judgements of each other.

Wear what you want to but don’t tell me you do so in the name of ‘modesty’. Who decides what modesty is and what is virtue? Someone dressed in a burkini, hijab, burqa, or niqab? I say no. Do not argue the case of wearing a burkini or anything else in the name of modesty. If you do this then you are providing a judgement on what constitutes modesty and virtue and that those who do not don this garb are immodest.

It can be argued that a hijab, a niqab, a burka and abaya is a heightened and elevated sense of immodesty and titillation, bordering on pornography. It is a prop that constantly introduces sex and the danger of being raped into the public sphere when no such idea is even present. It suggests in a public sphere that a woman is covered because she is in danger of being molested or that if she were uncovered she would incite a molestation of her. Covered in the public sphere as these women who are wearing niqabs and burkas in Europe and the US where there is no social or cultural history for its presence these women are introducing the concept of being constantly stalked or in sexual danger or being the cause of it if they were uncovered. It is if not ridiculous, psychologically unstable. To cover herself is to suggest a constant pre-occupation with sex.

OH MY GOD! Oh my God what am I saying? How insulting of me! Is it? I am only repeat what we know from the Old Testament, the Bible and the Koran–what God said to Adam and Eve when God deported them, exiled them to earth, threw them out of Paradise–for their transgression, their loss of innocence–meaning their loss of equality, their loss of a sense of unawareness of any difference between them–a loss of their sense of freedom, their loss of an ultimate superiority which today we refer to as feminism. The acceptance of the burka and niqab is an acceptance of a loss of freedom, not its expansion.

If at a society’s level it is accepted that the covering from head to toe of a woman is her freedom of choice—to separate herself out and not interact with others, see them, but not be seen, create an unfair and unjust environment, a conversation that is only and only a perversion of sexuality, then why does she chose this? Does she make a moral judgement? The answer will be yes. Women who wear this, point falsely to religion for reason. They make a false claim to religion as well as to morality. Our ethics demand that she not impose her morality or the lack of it in our public spaces on us.

For to allow a woman in a full cover, the niqab and burka, to do so, makes her exception, the rule, her judgement valid and makes us all immoral, non-secular and unethical.

On “Lightly Beating” Your Wife

Yesterday the Council of Islamic Ideology, an advisory committee on all matters Islamic to the Pakistani Government (which was only meant to be formed for ten years but has never been disbanded), came up with its own “Women’s Protection Bill”. This 136-page treatise is in response to the laudatory Punjab Government’s Women’s Protection Bill, which introduced mechanisms for protecting women from domestic violence.

The CII and other religious groups had protested vociferously against this bill (even though similar bills that go further than the Punjab bill and actually criminalize domestic violence have already been passed in Sindh and Balochistan). They promised to present their own version which was based on Islam and the teachings of the Quran. It’s important to note that the government is under no obligation to listen to any of their recommendations, and even within the CII there was opposition to many items in the bill. The CII’s token female member was not present on the day the bill was agreed upon in the Council.

What they came up with yesterday was in fact a group of very strange recommendations, the most outrageous of which was the idea that a man can “lightly beat” his wife if she disobeys him, doesn’t wash after sexual intercourse, doesn’t let him have sexual intercourse when he wants it, doesn’t wear a hijab. It also recommends that coeducational education not be allowed in primary school. And on and on.

It boggles the mind that anyone could find any of these recommendations sensible, but they don’t come out of nowhere. The vast majority of Pakistani men do believe that it’s their divine right to discipline women and keep women under control. And they confound masculinity with violence: therefore, the masculine thing to do is to keep your women under control by using violence. They know no other language: not the language of warmth, or kindness, verbal and non-verbal, which is actually prescribed in Islam.

Indeed, the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) never raised his hand against a woman, neither his wives nor his daughters nor any of the women in the Muslim community. We can point to verses in the Quran which have been translated to prescribe “beatings” (translated and interpreted by men, of course, reflecting their own patriarchal values). But the spirit of Islam and the actions of the Prophet go in the opposite direction. In the Prophet’s last sermon, he instructed Muslims to treat their wives with kindness, because they are “your partners.”

For a breakdown that looks at the rights of Pakistani women as citizens of this country, a conversation on GEO with human rights activist and lawyer Asma Jehangir shines a clear light on this entire episode.

What do you think of these recommendations given by the CII?
Asma Jehangir: It’s an insult to me to even discuss these recommendations. The scholars who give these recommendations should think carefully about what they’ve said. Those who recommend that Pakistani women should be beaten need to realize that Pakistani girls and women are not here to be beaten. The rest of the recommendations are so bizarre that I think these scholars need to think about the effect this would have on the next generation’s way of thinking: do they really think a husband should monitor when his wife bathes and when she wakes up, what she’ll wear? Has a man married a wife or a concubine? Where is the sense in any of this?

These scholars are part of a state institution. Have they forgotten that a woman is as much a Pakistani citizen as they are? If our Parliament has any shame, they will appoint scholars who want to protect and take care of our vulnerable and innocent girls and women. Our girls have won Nobel Peace Prizes and played international cricket – what have these scholars done for our country besides promote violence and war and advocated the beating of women?

Do you think these recommendations are an attempt to make women into second class citizens?
Asma Jehangir: The whole world’s mullahs can get together but they cannot implement these laws. Pakistani women know how to protect ourselves, and we want to live in dignity.

There is a recent saying that has become popular with the #BlackLivesMatter campaign: “When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” It is clear that the men of the CII and this cockamamie bill they’ve come up with reflects the fears of men in Pakistan that their superior status as males is being threatened by the emancipation and empowerment of women in this country. This bill is part of the ongoing backlash against the women’s movement in Pakistan. Men are starting to feel oppressed by women standing up for their rights.

The best thing women can do in this case is to not back down, refuse to treat this bill as anything to be even considered seriously. In a country with such severe problems of domestic violence and violence against women, this is a mere distraction, a smokescreen to cover up the real problems we face as women and citizens of Pakistan. Those of you who are our allies will continue to fight the realities of what it means to be a woman in Pakistan.

The rest of you can line up with the CII and get ready to go the way of the dinosaurs.

NOTE: Here is an excellent explanation of verse 4:34 in the Quran which most classical scholars and today’s misogynists take to mean the Quran sanctions wife-beating. You’ll see that there is another, more logical meaning to this verse if you follow the link.

PS: Here are some of the recommendations the CII missed out on, according to the Khabaristan Times

The Rise and Fall of “Muslim Selfie Girl”

A couple of weeks ago, a Belgian woman called Zakia Belkhiri became Internet-famous for appearing at a fascist anti-Muslim rally flashing peace signs while wearing a hijab. Her photos went viral (I myself tweeted them happily) as it was pointed out that anti-Islamic bigotry was best fought with a sense of humor.

Indeed, even the protestors themselves seemed to be smiling or laughing at the irony of the situation: one brave Muslim woman in a scarf making funny faces against a backdrop of hostile people carrying posters, and the horror of fascism can be forgotten because everyone is friends again!

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Yesterday old tweets and social media posts of Belkhiri came to light, some from as far back as 2012: Belkhiri declaring her hatred for Jews, her understanding of Adolf Hitler’s methods, her hatred for the Hebrew language. Horrible, ugly stuff, which is unacceptable in any circumstances. Belkhiri was 18 years old, old enough to know better, when she posted those words. Instead of offering a full apology she claimed her tweets were fake, then deleted them, then deleted her social media accounts altogether.

In the wake of this debacle are now “I told you so’s” from all corners: Muslims are anti-Semitic, Muslims don’t belong in Europe, the fascists were correct all along about them. The hot takes and think pieces are coming in fast and furious, as they tend to do when digital newsrooms need clicks and views. But in this case there’s also a particular need to divorce themselves from their previous endorsement of Belkhiri and her hijab heroics in the fascist rally in Belgium.

We’re forgetting something, though: here’s a photo we saw a month earlier of a lone woman in the midst of a fascist protest in Sweden, Tess Asplund.

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Belkhiri’s hypocrisy, her stupidity, her grandiose beliefs that social media works differently for her than it does for everyone else, are one thing. Her ugly anti-Semitism is another. But we turned her into a hero by projecting her all around the world with our tweets, retweets, breathless blog posts, and excitement about her stunt. She’s going to face ignominy for a very long time (and she may come up with a Ted talk in about ten years on the subject of Internet shaming and forgiveness and compassion, who knows?).

We could take this as an object lesson in choosing our heroes more carefully.

And yet even if you’re right about the Muslims and they’re everything you think Belkhiri is, it doesn’t erase this fact:

No matter who its target, fascism is still evil.

(UPDATE: There are reports that she has since fully apologized and explained her posts as the result of anger when reading about Israeli aggression against Palestinians. Perhaps she has realized her mistakes, but I don’t think this is going to help her case at this point, even though some will argue that she was immature, ignorant, or misled. We all need a team of PR advisers when dealing with the Internet. And we all love a scapegoat when it comes to someone else screwing up online.)

Do Muslim Women Need Feminism?

That was the name of a laughable seminar organized by God knows who at the International Islamic University of Malaysia. The laughable part was the two speakers involved, as you’ll see from the event poster below:

Now, there’s nothing wrong with organizing a seminar on whether or not Muslim women need feminism, but what’s truly hilarious is getting two men to sit on a stage and tell Muslim women whether they need feminism or not.

Seriously, could this university not find any Muslim women to talk on the subject? I’m not even sure these two men were Malaysian, so I have my doubts as to whether or not they could even speak on the context of Malaysian Muslim women’s lives.

Anyway, after the seminar, an audience member posted on Facebook that it was every bit the car wreck you’d expect such a condescending event to be. The two men sat on stage and lectured the audience on how women are inferior physically, mentally and emotionally. They used outdated science, tired arguments, and bankrupt philosophy to ultimately conclude that Muslim women did not need feminism. From all accounts it sounds like they did everything except say that feminism is a Western plot invented by Shaitan to lead Muslim women astray.

It’s certainly possible to deny women their rights and use Islam as justification for doing so, look to misogynist jurists, scholars, and translators for evidence that women are inferior to men. But it is intellectually dishonest to do so.

Enough scholarship exists to prove that this is one the biggest scams in the Muslim world: the revolutionary spirit of the early years in Islam — where strong women were lauded, where equality was enshrined in the Quran, when the mechanisms for guaranteeing women their economic independence and their dignity were put in place — was trampled upon by men who could not bear to give up their privilege They misinterpreted, mistranslated, and twisted everything in order to come up with the same scrambled patriarchy enjoyed by their forefathers.

For many Muslim women who identify as feminists, and for many feminists who identify as Muslim women, here’s what the answer to the question looks like:

God, through Islam, gave me equal rights. Muslim men conspired to take them away. Feminism helped me to stand up and reclaim them.

Pakistan and Valentine’s Day

The Algerian writer Kamal Daoud published an essay called “The Sexual Misery of the Arab World”, a masterful piece with echoes of Focault on the Arab world’s obsession with sex and its neuroses towards women and virginity. Daoud encapsulates perfectly how religion is hijacked to preach a hypervigilance about sexual matters. This causes a type of moral sickness which is spreading to Europe with the refugee crisis and the migration of large numbers of Arab men to European countries.

Orgasms are acceptable only after marriage — and subject to religious diktats that extinguish desire — or after death. Paradise and its virgins are a pet topic of preachers, who present these otherworldly delights as rewards to those who dwell in the lands of sexual misery. Dreaming about such prospects, suicide bombers surrender to a terrifying, surrealistic logic: The path to orgasm runs through death, not love.

It’s necessary but painful reading, especially as I contemplate, on February 13, certain elements of the religious right’s attempts to campaign against Valentine’s Day in Pakistan. I was in traffic the other day when I spotted two vans bearing this banner:

This isn’t the first time that we’ve seen anti-Valentine’s day campaigns in Pakistan; in previous years religious extremists have gone around to shops selling cards and flowers and other paraphernalia and threatened them with violence. And it doesn’t just happen in Pakistan; in India, anti-Valentine’s Day ads have shown up in the metro stations in New Delhi this year, and in previous years similar thugs have gone around shutting down sales of roses and teddy bears and the rest.

In response to the anti-Valentine’s Day two years ago, Sabeen Mahmud started a counter-protest. This caused a lot of controversy, which I won’t go into here. But when questioned about why they assassinated her in 2015, her killers stated this counter-protest as the reason they were offended by her liberal views.

The anti-Valentine’s Day campaign in Pakistan has been surrounded by rumors amplified on social media that Valentine’s Day has been “banned” in various cities of Pakistan. The President of Pakistan found this important enough to mention it in a speech yesterday. The reasoning is that Valentine’s Day is a Western tradition, offensive to Islam. No word yet on whether or not a man is allowed to present his wife with a bouquet of flowers on February 14.

In the West, Valentine’s Day is one of the biggest money-spinners in the year. Men and women are exhorted to perform extraordinary contortions, sexual and otherwise, to declare their love for one another. Flowers, chocolates, dinners, spa weekends, engagement diamonds and romantic getaways are all pushed onto eager consumers who are perhaps making up for 364 days of neglect with one big bang.

There are people that refuse to take part in this spectacle, and there are others who buy into it whole-heartedly, or go along with it because it’s kind of fun. When I was in school you could buy a Valentine gram (a cupcake and a rose) to be delivered in class to the person of your choice. It became a contest to see who was the most popular person, while others had to bear the utter humilation of not receiving a single cupcake, or got one bought by their mother.

Is Valentine’s Day a danger to Islam, to eastern values, to pocketbooks? Is the anti-Valentine’s Day another way of protesting the influence of Western values on vulnerable adults? Will we become better Muslims by turning our backs on teddy bears and chocolates? Will those who would have spent the day weeping because they don’t have a partner turn their anger and bitterness into religious righteousness and a morally upstanding position against Satan’s Day?

I don’t really have the answers to any of these questions. Valentine’s Day tends to pass me by like a plane in the sky, distant, but impossible to ignore because of all the noise it makes. I do know one thing though: love, like anything else, becomes all the more exciting and seductive when it is forbidden. Just ask Romeo and Juliet, or Heer and Ranjha, or Sassi and Pannu, or Ram and Leela.

Erasing Cultural Diversity in the Muslim World

This collage of photographs really doesn’t need much explanation. On the left, women in Saudi-style abayas and niqabs. They’ve been convinced or coerced into wearing this uniform. They’ve been told that this is the way to paradise. Or they’ve been threatened with violence, or fines and jail if they don’t comply. For many of them, this is the only way to leave the house.

On the right, the beautiful array of traditional clothing for women that you can find all over Muslim countries. Not one of these outfits is immodest or obscene. Some include a head covering, some don’t. Yet they have all been deemed sinful, and a deliberate effort is going on to suppress and erase women’s traditional clothing (and in many cases, men’s, in favor of the Arab-style thobe and skullcap).

This is not Islam. This is cultural imperialism, mixed with misogyny.

As Inas Younis wrote in her deeply insightful essay “The Moderate Muslim Misogynist,”

…he too believes that God has created him to be a rational being,  except when it comes to his sexual capacity, where he is totally helpless and inclined by nature to gravitate towards the path of least resistance.  And to prevent him from falling into the deplorable world governed by loose women, he demands that all women exercise whatever degree of modesty he needs to maintain a state of chemical castration.   All women must, for the benefit of preserving his dignity, and the dignity of his society, act as one organism and not as individuals.  In some places this is taken so literally that all women are legally required to dress exactly the same.  In other societies they are expected to be completely desexualized.  Naturally this has had the opposite effect,  by hyper- sexualizing  the most benign and innocent expressions of female beauty.   And  if a woman  should step out and express her individuality,  it is perceived as an invitation to violently put her  in her place.

I read those words yesterday, but it was the photograph above that really made it hit home. Younis goes on to write, about Muslim women who take part in this travesty, “Nevertheless, women in Islam continue to fulfill their part of the social contract, by feigning weakness as a sign of spiritual strength.” But Muslim women who take up the abaya and niqab by choice also are complicit in the lie perpetuated by misogynists (who can be found the world over) that they are responsible for keeping men from sinning, by erasing every inch of their bodies so that they do not tempt men.

I have met women who attended Al-Huda classes who refused to wear perfume for fear of arousing strange men, as if men would turn around and sexually assault them if they got a whiff of Chanel No 5. In some countries women’s voices are silenced from public broadcasts because of the fear that men will become aroused listening to them. Salafi interpretations of the Quran add to the verses instructing women to draw their outer clothes over themselves with a parenthetical instruction to cover their faces entirely so that only one eye can see the way.

When Muslim women believe in this sort of nonsense, they imprison themselves, and they insult men. They deprive men of the opportunity to practice exerting self-control over themselves. They do not allow men to deal with their temptations and conquer them and emerge better men. Even our prophets had to deal with these very human urges and control themselves. By hiding themselves away, women contribute to the sexual immaturity and underdevelopment of the men in their society.

And it’s not as if those urges go away; when repressed, they emerge even more strongly and destructively in the form of sexual violence.

Women have a responsibility: to be normal, and to move in the world normally, so that men can also be normal. Carrying yourself in the world as if your very existence is a sin will never allow that to happen.

PS: Don’t use this post to justify anti-Muslim bigotry or prejudice, or anti-immigrant racism. That’s not what this post was meant for. Also, I have no problem with women wearing the hijab; it’s the complete erasure of women that I protest.

Sexual Harassment and the Desi Woman

The Tehelka sexual harassment scandal has brought to the forefront of my mind all the incidents of sexual harassment desi women have faced in their lives. The predatory colleague at work, the anonymous groper, the drunk uncle – which woman hasn’t faced these and other incursions on our bodies and our personhood?  One thing’s for certain: the pain never really dies. The humiliation never really leaves you. It’s burned on to your skin along with the stares, the words, the touches.

When you’re a desi woman and you are sexually harassed, at work, at school, or in the home, you struggle with a kind of guilt that I’m not sure is mirrored or matched in other parts of the world. That’s because there’s a type of misogyny that exists in our South Asian culture which other cultures do not have. It places all the burden of guilt and blame squarely on the woman’s shoulders because she dared to leave the safety of the house to go out and work in an office or go to school on her own whims.

You see, a “good” Pakistani or Indian woman doesn’t go out of the house to mix with strange men. She never needs to stay late at night at work because she doesn’t work. She never needs to fear the spectre of sexual harassment because her chador, her demeanour, her morals will protect her. A “good” desi woman will immolate herself in fire to show her faithfulness to her husband. She will fast for the health of her husband. A”good” desi woman devotes herself to her house and her children, because that’s her role in life. She doesn’t seek fulfilment and excitement outside the house, like a man does.

So if you were at work and your boss decides you are his personal plaything and forces himself on you while you are in his office, or in the elevator, on a work trip, it’s your fault. If you are at school and the teacher assaults you because he is powerful and you are weak and small, it’s your fault. If you are walking in a market and someone touches you because he can get away with it, it’s your fault. You should have been at home, not outside.

And if you were sexually harassed by your husband’s brother or father, or a cousin or your own uncle, then it’s your fault too, because you must have done something that drew his attention, that attracted him. Maybe you didn’t cover yourself properly. Maybe you talked too loudly, smiled too much. Maybe you were too “bold”. Maybe you wore makeup. Jeans. High heels. Maybe you still did everything right but he touched you anyway. It’s still your fault. Men are like that. Women have to endure.

I can’t imagine the hell the Tehelka journalist who blew the whistle on Tarun Tejpal must be going through right now. She must be wishing that she’d never said anything, that she’d kept quiet, because if she had, this would have all gone away and she’d be left alone to deal with her pain and her grief. She would have internalized it, found a way to blame herself for it. She might have hung on to her job and then quit a few months later, unable to face seeing Tejpal in the halls of the office. Now a mighty media icon has been shown to have genitals of clay and it’s all her fault.

Perhaps the Indian media will rally around her. Perhaps not. Tejpal is a powerful man and he has his allies, male and female. Powerful men always do. They will find ways to justify his actions. They will say that his recusing himself from work for six months while his ‘misjudgment’ ‘lacerates his soul’ is punishment enough. If the details of the case prove sexual assault instead of harassment, there will be an outcry, but it will not stop women from being harassed or assaulted anywhere in South Asia.

And the young woman will be forced to immolate herself in fire to prove that she is blameless. But women never are. They are at fault by very virtue of their existence. She was there and I could not help myself.

Cop-out. Fade to black.

Malala’s Book: A Manufactured Controversy

I’ve been reading Malala’s book and although I’m not finished with it yet, I can say that there is nothing in it that anyone with any common sense would find offensive to Islam. In fact, the whole book is imbued with Malala’s love for Islam and her respect for her Pashtun traditions. To the frustration of many in the West, Malala continues to profess her love for her religion and her culture, and some of her supporters think that she should abandon Islam in order to be a true heroine in their eyes. It’s safe to say that will probably never happen. Malala is a Muslim, and that isn’t going to change.

Let’s take one of the contentions that in this book, the name of the Prophet appears without the respectful phrase “peace be upon him” after every mention of his name. In Muslim countries this is a common custom and is often abbreviated to PBUH for short. In Western, non-Muslim countries, this is unheard of. It would be the work of copy-editors and proofreaders to insert or remove that phrase or acronym, and if you know anything about the process of getting a book ready for publication at a large publishing house, you’d know that they prepare a style sheet that they use as a guide to make sure there is consistency with names, phrases, capitalisation of words, etc.

Someone in the editing process probably decided that it would be simpler and easier for non-Muslim readers to see “the Prophet” without the PBUH added every time. This is a decision made based on the expected readership of the book, and while it may not be au courant with what we do in the Muslim world, it is ridiculous to blame this on Malala.

Once a book enters the stage of proofs and production, it is out of the author’s hands. In this case there were two authors – Christina Lamb, the British journalist (who is responsible for filling in the historical and political background to complement Malala’s personal story) and while Malala may have very well wanted to have PBUH inserted into every instance, the decision was not in her hands at later stages of production. If you’re so worried about that, I urge you to say “salallau alehi wasalam” every time you see the word “Prophet” in Malala’s book (which really isn’t more than a handful of times), and indeed every time you hear it, such as when it is recited in the Azaan (call to prayer) five times a day.

The detractors have also brought up the shibboleth of Salman’s Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, stating that Malala wrote about the book in a positive way. This is not correct. The book describes the controversy and how it erupted in Pakistan, stoked in a very deliberate way, and then goes on to describe how her father and his young colleagues, only twenty or so themselves at the time, debated how best to deal with the book.

Let’s look at the passage in some detail:

The book was called the Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, and it was a parody of the Prophet’s life set in Bombay. Muslms widely considered it blasphemous and it provoked so much outrage that it seemed people were talking of little else…

My father’s college held a heated debate in a packed room. Many students aregued that the book should be banned and burned and the fatwa upheld. My father also saw the book as offensive to Islam but believes strongly in freedom of speech. “First, let’s read the book and then why not respond with our own book,” he suggested. He ended by asking in a thundering voice my grandfather would have been proud of, “Is Islam such a weak religion that it cannot tolerate a book written against it? Not my Islam!”

In short, her father, writes Malala, found the book offensive, but thought that rather than burning it in protest, it would be better to read it first to understand exactly why it was offensive, and then answer with another, better book they could write themselves. And he said that Islam was too strong to be harmed by a fictitious book.

It’s easily seen from the above passage that instead of considering The Satanic Verses as freedom of speech, Malala’s father believed that Muslims had the right to freedom of speech and should exercise that right by answering a blasphemous book with a BETTER book: A rather sophisticated response, if you ask me, for someone so young, and a refreshing change from those who want to wreak destruction on everything around them because their feelings have been hurt. Burning and banning a book will not make unwritten what has been written, so far better to counter the negative with a positive, rather than more negativity, violence, and destruction.

Certainly this topic and others, such as Zia’s draconian policies, distortions of Islam and Sharia, and so on and so forth, are delicate ones and one wonders whether or not Malala’s story would have been better served by leaving those out of the book. But it’s obvious that Malala’s detractors are trying to stir controversy where really, none exists. They are trying to present the book’s endorsement of protecting minority rights as un-Islamic. What could possibly be their motivation? Love of Islam, or the need to bolster their patriotic credentials and get some television time and column space in the process? Anger that it’s Malala’s face on a book that’s flying off the shelves all over the world, and not their own?

I’ll let you be the judge of that. In the meantime, if you want to criticize a book, try reading it first. You might actually learn something in the process.