The dismal story of Shafilea Ahmed, the 17-year-old British-born (she died in 2003) daughter of Pakistani parents, hasn’t made front page news in Pakistan. Yet the story of her conflict with her family may mirror the reality of many women in this country who lack the freedom to make small choices on a daily basis. In circumstances that are gruesome and tragic, the teenager was allegedly killed by her parents for dishonouring her family by failing to go through an arranged marriage and insisting on pursuing a Westernised lifestyle.
Shafilea Ahmed was born in Bradford, West Yorkshire in 1986. In happier days, as a bright teenager she saw her future as a lawyer. Instead, a few months after her 17th birthday, her remains were found next to a river in the Lake District after being reported missing for almost five months.
Shafilea was one of many British women of Pakistani descent who are forced to live a dual existence. Their lives within the confines of their homes are restrictive, traditional and cultural, and alternatively in school or at work they have more choices and freedom. On the night that she was killed, allegedly asphyxiated by her parents, she had been dressed in Western clothing in defiance of her parents’ desire for her to wear traditional dress. Her parents’ fury forced them to collude in a murder that no parent can imagine, no matter how awful their child’s offence. Shafilea’s indignation may seem natural but in Pakistan and in many parts of the subcontinent, it is no strange custom that women have their dress dictated to them.
A woman’s attire, quite frequently, is a compendium of identity and women are seen as bastions of tradition and community. Shafilea was expected to accept and fit into this role but she didn’t or couldn’t conform. She was a young woman whose parents were forcing her to abide by their traditions, forgetting that her reality was incredibly different from theirs. And this reality is different for many young people no matter if they are living in the UK or today’s Pakistan. Global media, advertising, the internet, cinema, TV, books and the list goes on, are all part of any woman’s reality. In this enlightened realm, there is bound to be an expansion of a woman’s cultural choice and a need to renegotiate tradition and identity. Women naturally start making choices and start dressing differently and start challenging the boundaries that have hitherto defined their lives.
Much has been filmed and documented about the adversities a Pakistani woman faces from traditional forces. Past the acid burnt faces, the smouldering corpses of unfortunate brides and the sad tales of many a Mukhtara Mai, there is a very silent, modern Pakistani woman. She lives in urban cities like Karachi and Lahore or even rural town centres and pushes her limits, slowly and subtly, with dignity and a ferocity that is almost imperceptible. She leaves her home each morning to attend college or university in western, or eastern, attire. You see women like her as attendants in supermarkets selling the latest shampoo brands and in banks as tellers or managers. Women in Pakistan are athletes defying dress codes and competing in sports or they are training to be pilots. At the forefront are young designers reinventing the dress code for an evolving generation.
The undercurrents of enforced tradition that Shafilea’s parents recognise do exist and run strong but there is a strong indignant majority that does speak out. The Lahore marathon is a case in point. It was organiaed on January 30, 2005, with over 60 elite runners participating in a field of 17,500. The runners were a mixture of men and women and created a huge controversy with religious groups. For weeks, Islamist groups tried to ban women from the race and more than 400 people were arrested. Religious leaders were incensed at the idea of women running in shorts on the streets of Lahore although in reality most women wore a shalwar kameez. Things got so charged that in April 2005 a coalition of six religious parties physically assaulted women running a race in Gujranwala. But many Pakistani women in the face of adversity still ran the marathon which was repeated the next year and the year after.
Many women no matter where they are in the world dress modestly by their own choice — for a variety of reasons. In Pakistan, there is no draconian law obliging women to dress a certain way and we should be proud of that. The Veena Maliks are hardly the norm and, contrary to what religious and conservative groups may think, have no hope of rocking the foundations of the modest Pakistani women.
Today, Pakistan has become one of the sweatshops of the world’s export-oriented garment industry. There is an explosion in the availability of Western clothes. They are cheaper and sometimes more practical for the working woman. As more and more women make their way out of the home and into the marketplace, they experiment with more than one form of dress. And like any woman, the Pakistani woman of the future may like to be seen in what she sees as fashionable and in what is more comfortable and practical.
Sadly, Shafilea Ahmed’s parents misunderstood their Pakistani identity and the identity of an educated, modern Pakistani woman. Like all other societies, Pakistan, too, has an evolving tradition and culture unlike the stagnant memories Shafilea’s parents held on to. They forced their daughter into hating her origins instead of being proud of them and drawing strength from them. The Pakistan they seek to keep alive in the back alleys of Bradford is not one to be proud of and is the result of the politics of frustrated immigrants. You will find many Pakistani women and many Pakistani parents dismayed and saddened by Shafilea’s parents’ alleged slaying of their own daughter. There is no honour in oppression and no dignity in taking the life of someone for making a choice.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 31st, 2012.