A revealing directive

  • Though rescinded, it revealed a mentality


Somewhere in this country recently, a house was burgled. Diamonds worth a fortune were stolen. The police made no attempt to locate the thief or thieves. Instead they arrested the woman who lived in the house because she was the owner of these diamonds.

“Diamonds,” the woman was told, “must be kept in a locker in the bank. If you keep them out of the bank you are responsible for the theft.”

As punishment the woman was made to sit in the sun until she collapsed with heat stroke.

That event above did not take place. It is an analogy for what is discussed below.

The dress code for young female students has come under scrutiny lately. It seems that a uniform which covers the entire body, a shalwar kameez and dupatta, were not enough for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government, which issued instructions for girls to wear, in addition to this uniform, an abbaya or a chador.

“A good number of girl students have developed a habit of wearing dupatta or ‘half chador’, which is not sufficient to cover their bodies,” the official issuing the directive said. It seems there were incidents of harassment, or ‘eve-teasing’ as it is called, and hiding every inch of the body with as many further layers of fabric as possible would help in preventing those incidents. The directive is supposed to also be “in line with the tribal values and the traditions of Islam”.

There it is, the mandatory reference to Islam that manages to make everything legitimate. You wonder whether such careless, ill-judged references to religion themselves ought to be as penalised as not adhering to the actual thing seems to be?

Abrupt changes in policy make you wonder what the intention is. Are the interests of the people being considered, or is the policy a morale boost and a one-up for re-election for those promulgating it?

As for tribal values, there are many examples of those which are nothing if not questionable. To quote a comparatively benign case, a couple of years ago, MNA Ayesha Gulalai was denied a place on the stage with tribal men by the organisers of a protest against the proposed merger of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). She was told it was against tribal customs and traditions for a woman to sit on stage.

Murtaza Haider reports that according to a survey conducted by the USAID, almost 59 per cent of rural women in KPK reported being subjected to physical abuse since they turned 15, and one in 10 rural women in KPK and Balochistan each routinely experienced domestic physical violence.

Is the government of Pakistan there to go along with these customs or to help change those that require changing?

The order for an extra abaya or chador has since been rescinded in another one of those U-turns which is becoming increasingly common in officialdom these days. It was, nevertheless a revealing directive.

This directive now rescinded displayed a complete absence of reason. Why, if two layers of fabric are insufficient to protect a woman from harassment, will three layers do the trick? In addition, how are the parents of girls in government schools to afford this extra item of their daughter’s uniform, given that running a household is now at least twice as expensive as it was about a year ago?

This was a policy that was not put through proper channels. It is what democracy is about that such matters should be considered by persons involved in the implementation and those it is aimed at before they are issued, in this case students, parents and schools. This directive came as a surprise, in most cases not a pleasant one, to all of these.

Government schools do not come with air-conditioned classrooms. In many if not most cases classes are conducted in the open. For girls to wear chadors in the heat under such conditions is cruel. To add a further layer on top of this in the school and while walking to and from home is cruel in the extreme.

But over and above all this, the question remains: why are the thieves of women’s freedom, the male members of this society, not targeted? Why are they not taught to respect women, and to lower their gaze, and this is directed by Islam.

A modest dress, or a chador or a hijab, none of these are any protection for a woman when faced with a man who is bent on assaulting or harassing her. What needs to change are men and their attitudes. Not the dress.

Abrupt changes in policy make you wonder what the intention is. Are the interests of the people being considered, or is the policy a morale boost and a one-up for re-election for those promulgating it? If it were genuinely in the public’s interests, it would be able to stand on its own merits, regardless of social media.

It is time that women are stopped being used as tools towards someone else’s personal gain and viewed for what they are: citizens as much as any other, and above all else as human beings.