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Prime-time shame


EVERY time optimism is allowed to interfere with reality a stark reminder is delivered of how far Pakistan is from being a pluralistic, modern state in sync with the demands of the current times.

The latest reminder, which came in the form of a verbal blow that was no less than a jaw-crunching punch by a prize fighter for at least someone as naive as me, came from the man who describes himself as the vice chancellor of Jamia Binoria. That a man of God (who has hundreds of young students in his care at his Karachi institution) could use such language and that too for a woman, any woman let alone an accomplished role model, compelled me to make sure that this actually happened and that it was not a nightmare one could wake up from and shrug off as such.

Mufti Naeem, who figured on a number of TV channels on Thursday evening to discuss the approval of the Punjab Assembly of the Women’s Protection Bill (legislation meant to clamp down on violence against women), at one point called the 2012 Oscar-winner and a current nominee Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy ‘fahisha aurat.’

For those who don’t know Urdu suffice it to say that it is one of the most derogatory terms that can be used for a woman as it casts aspersions on her morals and character. The context was of Ms Obaid-Chinoy’s latest documentary addressing the issue of ‘honour killing’, which is no less than a plague on society.

The learned ‘vice chancellor’ didn’t stop here. He made an implicit threat, no less than a provocation or incitement to violence when he said that the screening of a similar film in India led to an enraged crowd setting fire to the cinema house. “Here the prime minister hosted the screening of that film made by that ‘fahisha aurat” at the Prime Minister’s Secretariat.

That Mufti Naeem made multiple appearances on channels the same evening was indicative of two facts. He was either invited by anchors desperately seeking higher ratings or more ominously because their own conservative views though cloaked in smartly tailored suits, shirts and expensive neckties, echo those of the so-called religious scholar.

At another point the Mufti also suggested women’s rights activists such as Farzana Bari, Marvi Sirmed and others who support and defend such legislation “imported from the United States should be exported to the US.”

In another programme when the obscurantist Mufti Naeem was confronted by PML MPA Uzma Bukhari, who cited instances of child abuse by even the family members of the victims and rape cases involving teachers at religious schools, he responded by yelling “jahil” (illiterate) at her.

Pardon me for quoting at length the views of the man seen as one of the leading scholars of a major Muslim school of thought but it is important to do so if only to underline what sort of sermons are delivered every week at huge Friday congregations. Of course, the other purpose is to remind ourselves of the steep angle of the challenge facing Pakistan.

This contempt for over half our population, which is propagated and projected in the name of faith, must somehow stop. But of course one is also reminded of the slippery slope that the enlightened path represents with regular frequency.

It is said Ms Maryam Nawaz, the prime minister’s daughter who is reputedly taking an ever-assertive policy role in a number of areas in the PML-N government, initiated her father’s invitation to fete Ms Obaid-Chinoy at the official level.

Good on the prime minister’s daughter. In her case also one is reminded of Ms Nawaz’s visit to White House, along with her daughters, when she accompanied the prime minister on his official visit. Standing next to Michelle Obama, she followed on from the US First Lady in addressing issues of women’s rights and girl child but hastened to add she wasn’t a feminist.

Feminist isn’t a dirty word. I am proud of being one. Her semi-apology at raising women’s issues appeared directed at the frame of mind that the Mufti Naeems of this world represent. That was then. Perhaps now, through her celebration of the documentary-maker’s work and her father’s commitment to tighten the loopholes in the legislation that allows ‘honour killing’ perpetrators to escape unpunished, she is demonstrating more self-confidence. Who knows if the military-led operations against terrorism, the National Action Plan, and the resultant changed environment are encouraging even the meeker believers in the equality of sexes to stand up and be counted? Whatever the reason, it is a welcome development.

Another interesting aspect (and no I am not running away with my imagination) is that the forces that invoke the faith to justify discrimination against women, even their abuse, and generally preach intolerance are suddenly not so smug about assured state patronage. Their virulent ideological pronouncements may be an indication of their nervousness, insecurity at how they perceive the changes in the state policy vis-à-vis religious militancy will affect their own utility to the powers that be; after all obscurantism has grown in society under a blanket held in place by the security state.

Even in the best of scenarios, these well-entrenched forces with thousands of innocent, brainwashed foot soldiers will not bow to agents of change and accept any progressive movement in society. They will see it as a matter of life and death and react accordingly.

This is where the state will have to demonstrate that it hasn’t been eaten hollow by incompetence, mismanagement, corruption and decades-long support to toxic ideologies. If it can somehow find its spine, battle this existential threat with success, even if suffering some more pain in the bargain, one can feel justifiably smug for once. But only if.