Let’s temporarily come out of our latest feverish national dilemmas — whether the final word would be spoken by an elected or an unelected functionary of the state in the matter of the prime minister’s disqualification — and consider the significance of this question in other areas of our national life. This question deeply informs our smaller, personal choices that are much more important to our individual and family lives than larger-than-life national issues.
Consider, for example, the choice before a young Muslim parent of a girl child when she turns three: whether or not to arrange for her education. There was a time when the question was summarily decided by a professional religious adviser — in the negative. I have decided to use the past tense while writing the previous sentence but not without some reluctance, for just two weeks ago, I saw a small booklet being sold in Karachi’s Urdu Bazaar. The author of the booklet — a tiny part of an avalanche of recent Urdu publications on this and other important subjects — has no doubt in his mind that teaching English to your girl child is equivalent to letting her lose her haya (‘modesty’), which is seen as the single most important — perhaps the only — value her life holds.
I used the past tense — even perversely enjoying my reluctance in making this tiny, insignificant grammatical choice — because I realise that although the pious and self-righteous author of the blessed booklet is absolutely sure that he has the authority to interpret the divine law to draw the conclusion that he does, he has little choice but to put his fatwa through one devilish device of modernity — the printing press — in his effort to convince his literate readers not to send their female offspring to a school where they have a danger of being exposed to the language of the immodest.
Also, I realise with a satisfaction no less perverse than my above-mentioned reluctance that a great majority of Karachi’s citizenry today decide to educate their daughters to whatever level they can materially afford to, despite the cocksure maulvi enjoying the divine right to make such choices for them. It may be because they are bombarded with such fatwas only through printed words, mosque loudspeakers, religious TV channels and other modern means of communications that they still have the luxury to decide whether their daughters can do with or without the haya that the maulvi talks about in his written or oral sermons.
Can we say that this is a small, apparently insignificant, example of life overtaking law — religious law in this case — or at least one particular interpretation thereof?
Many other people. e.g., those who suffered life in Taliban-occupied Swat not so long ago, have a rather narrower choice. Not only were they exposed to another modern variety of communication technology — the famous FM radio station which was aptly called the ‘Mullah Radio’ as long as it remained alive — but an even more effective way of convincing them to follow the right path: girls’ schools were routinely and most convincingly blown up using state-of-the-art devices that put to “the constructive use” the explosive technology reportedly invented by Alfred Nobel.
Even the city folk — who are urbanised only to the extent and as a result of their migration from backwaters to urban Pakistan — have the choice to decide about the personal fate of their daughters, based on their own priorities. This, thanks to the fact that our Islamic Republic is perpetually and anachronistically reluctant to decide that getting modern education is a fundamental right of every child — male or female — that cannot be usurped even by his/her parents or guardians, let alone the guardian angels advising them on religious law, which — being a complete code of life — is supposed to be the basis of every single decision affecting the life of a minor or adult citizen.
This, to my mind, is important. More important than the fate of another elected chief executive whose conduct has been found questionable by those who think they enjoy the authority to decide in this matter. The parents of a girl — a child or an adult — seem to have much more unquestioned authority in our society than the unelected organs of the state can ever dream of. Once the girl child turns an adult, her haya grows up into the family’s izzat which is to be protected by its authoritative counterpart, ghairat; both sacred words translated, rather inaccurately but interestingly, as ‘honour’. This event occasionally leads to the parents, or other family or tribe members, of a young woman deciding whether she should be killed for her questionable conduct.
I present below two small, insignificant news items involving the murder of young Pakistani women that have been all but ignored by our political and social commentators.
On April 30, 2012, Zahra, 24-year-old widow of Faizan — famously killed by the American contractor Raymond Davis on January 26, 2011 — and her mother Nabeela, 50, were allegedly shot dead by Zahra’s father, Shehzad Butt, at their house in Johar Town, Lahore. The house was purchased with the sacred blood-money coughed up — under the Islamic law of Qisas and Diyat — by some philanthropist on behalf of the American killer. The din this second series of murder of Pakistani citizens produced was, if I am not wrong, a wee bit less audible than the electronic frenzy we were subjected to for more than a year previously. Zahra’s life as a Pakistani citizen was apparently less valuable (her mother can be dismissed as mere collateral damage) than those extinguished by someone not having the same kind of authority as her father.
A few days ago, Alesha informed a court in England that she witnessed her Pakistani parents, Iftikhar and Farzana, suffocate her elder sister Shafilea (who was 17) to death in 2003. The parents, if found guilty, will certainly be punished.
We cannot be sure about Shehzad Butt. Pakistani judges are known to be lenient with men who murder their women for ghairat.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 26th, 2012.
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