While we need beyond all progress, a move away from medieval times and equity for all citizens regardless of race, religion or gender, we seem often to be held back by a rope tied to darkness. A hefty tug was made on this rope by clerics in the town of Karak, located some 120 kilometres from Peshawar, who declared that women in the district were not free to go out shopping to bazaars on their own, unless they were accompanied by a male family member. The extraordinary decision, which of course, infringes on the basic rights and personal liberties of women, sets them back a long way, and forces us to ask just what kind of age we are living in. It is certainly not one of enlightenment. Indeed, just the opposite would hold true.
While the deputy commissioner of Karak, approached by the ulema to enforce the decision by deploying women police personnel in bazaars to stop shopping by ‘unaccompanied’ women, has declined to do so, the matter will not stop here. The fact is that the announcement by senior clerics, who included a former district head of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazal, will have an impact on people in the area and affect thinking. In our society, clerics do play a role in determining behaviours and the decision that mosque prayer leaders will speak on the bizarre shopping ban in their Friday sermons will only add to this. Due to social pressures, many people, notably in orthodox areas such as Karak, are reluctant to defy clerics or run into trouble with them. This leaves women open to the risk of more restrictions being forced on them, taking away even the limited freedoms they enjoy.
In the past, too, we have seen clerical decisions focusing again and again on the role of women in society: schooling for them has been banned, various attempts made even in larger cities to impose specific dress codes on them, while in Quetta, a city once known as a lively centre of culture, an attempt was made a few years ago to prevent restaurant owners from serving women. Even in Lahore, bombings by ‘morality’ squads have targeted cafes where couples meet. The Karak decision follows this pattern, with shopkeepers asked not to serve women who are not accompanied. Interestingly enough, the same standards of morality do not appear to have been applied to the police women the clerics have suggested patrol bazaars. Presumably, they will not bring their fathers, brothers or husbands with them. Who then will safeguard their morality and will their presence in bazaars, not violate the ‘Pakhtun culture’ the clerics speak of, which apparently bans women from ‘roaming’ streets alone.
The decision is, of course, absurd. It follows no logic at all, with confusion over what the clerics have based their warped reasoning on at any rate, mixing social norms, religious practices and notions conjured up on their own. In some ways we could laugh at this as a sign of madness. But the situation that arises as a result of these decisions is no laughing matter. The result is an increase on pressures on women, a further reduction in their rights and a tightening of the limited space still available to them. As a society, and as a state, we need to act against this.
Women, under the Constitution, enjoy rights equal to men. The reality that in practice these are not permitted to them reveals deep flaws in the system. We need to take measures to empower women and take them away from the target area set up by clerics who frequently fire at them. Decisions such as the one made in Karak simply add to the difficulties for women and add to levels of confusion in our society. Ways have to be found to hold back such onslaughts and grant women the space they need to rise higher in society
Published in The Express Tribune, July 23rd, 2013.
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