I’ve received a lot of feedback from readers of my book Taboo: The Hidden Culture of a Red Light Area over the past ten years: Some say they understand the community in Shahi Mohalla more after reading about it, others say they can more clearly see the hypocrisy in the double standards that exist for men and women. Many young people tell me that they always wanted to learn to play a musical instrument, only to face opposition from their families. Others say they finally understand why society condemns the performing arts and treats music and art as dubious pastimes. Wives were freed up enough to admit they were uncomfortable with their roles and identities after sex workers talked about the difficulties that ‘good women’ in society face.
I was lucky enough to get this feedback. I have also been heartened to see people taking a keen interest in women’s issues since then. Students have become more inquisitive about Shahi Mohalla and areas like it, and have started doing their own research. Many young women have become frustrated by their subservient status in our society and asked what they could do about it.
Looking back, if I had to sum up what my research was all about, I would say it aimed to reveal how our patriarchal society uses the myth of women’s ‘morality’ and ‘virtue’ as a tool of control.
Most women try their best to be ‘good,’ keeping in view the pressures society places on them. Despite this, our society keeps telling them they are loose or immoral because of some small deviation from the mysterious norms of morality. Women need to carefully tip toe within the narrow path of approved behavior – they can only create some elbow room by fulfilling their desires by engaging in those activities that are considered ‘acceptable’. Therefore those who are not allowed to sing popular songs make do with singing naats. Those who are not allowed to dance celebrate this simple pleasure at mehndis. Those who are not allowed to engage in social activities, connect, often more precariously, on the internet.
I hope the current debates on women and their status gives impetus to a conversation where we can question the whole issue of morality and the way that it engulfs women in our society. The concept of being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ looms large in our current discourse. As much is revealed in the research I conducted, where the problems faced by both prostitutes and ordinary housewives were heartbreakingly similar. Both suffer; sex workers have to live with constant stigma and are marginalised, while housewives live in constant fear that their reputations could suddenly be ruined by one small misstep.
We need to question who defines these moral standards and why they only focus on women. We need to understand the role this morality plays in patriarchal hierarchies through the powers of prohibition, sanction and punishment. We need to recognize how men’s concept of morality is used as a beating stick to keep women in their ‘proper place’.
Perhaps the younger generation will take up this discussion. It is long overdue. I hope, with time, we will deepen the simplistic slogans of ‘end violence against women’ by questioning the social context that fosters such violence. We should begin by redefining gender roles and balancing the powers that have been usurped by one gender over the other. Haven’t we had enough of husbands burning their wives and communities beating women to death because they are merely suspected of having broken a moral standard? Haven’t we had enough of sexual harassment of women by men who blame them for causing it? Only young women and men together can begin to redefine our gender roles and our accepted standards of morality.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, March 6th, 2011.
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