By: Rafia Zakaria
ONE of the first stories written in English by a South Asian woman was Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain’s Sultana’s Dream. This piece of science fiction imagines, delightfully, a world where women and not men dominate the public space, with the latter confined in purdah. In this blissful world, there is little crime, and much peace and harmony.
That, of course, was the dream of a dead feminist duly discarded, as so many other similar impulses are, in our subcontinent full of men. Recent events, however, suggest that there may be some precious kernels of truth pressed between those pages of forgotten fiction.
As the headlines of newspapers week after week have now proclaimed for a prolonged period, Pakistan’s women are not particularly wanted in the public sphere. Virtually each week brings proposals to amend laws to marry them off as children, permitting their beating as wives, or restricting their opportunities as students. Some would like them completely eliminated from the public sphere; others would like them covered up and rendered invisible; everyone seems uncomfortable about what to do with them. A pure Pakistan — and that is everyone’s goal these days — seems to have no room for its women.
Where coexistence seems impossible, segregation may be a solution. In the past, extreme forms of such sequestration were seen in the aftermath of the Taliban takeover of Kabul and earlier still in the shadow of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. In either case, women, previously present in the public sphere, disappeared. Female teachers, doctors, university professors, dentists, and bankers lost their jobs. Female students found themselves sitting at home; co-educational institutions were no longer permitted to them, and neither was the world beyond the threshold of their homes.
A separate territorial space for women could segregate them from the male population.
To enable that, these women — now all declared possible contaminants of the reformed society — a new enforcement force, a morality police, had to be trained and dispatched. Their job was ensuring that women were adequately covered, properly accompanied and generally obeying the strictures incumbent on them by the new regime.
As numerous examples from Iran and Afghanistan have substantiated, it was too difficult a job; as in Pakistan, there are millions of women in both these countries and commanding complete obedience from them has proved nearly impossible. There were women without male guardians who insisted that they had to be out in public without an escort, others who forgot their coverings, lost them, misplaced them or thought they were, at 70 or 80 years of age, exempt from wearing them. All of it, of course, led to many problems for men committed to keeping public spaces free of the feminine presence.
Given this circumstance and the fact that Pakistan, with its many linguistic, ethnic and other differences, has always relied on territorial distinction to ensure peace, an alternate plan must be considered. This could well be demarcating a separate territorial space for women, where they can be segregated from the male population. Within this space, women could move about freely and provide for their own needs. In the rest of Pakistan, there would concomitantly be no need for a separation of all services; there could be male bathrooms, male offices, male schools, male restaurants and male shops.
Given that temptation and the possibility of evil are usually blamed on women, this female-free Pakistan would be devoid of sin and hence properly pure. Finally, to permit necessary interactions between men and women such that future generations can still be produced, a militarised zone could be created at the edges of the female province.
Within this zone, strictly regulated interactions between men and women of the same family could be permitted for short periods of time after which they could return to their respective single-gender realms. The borders of the militarised zone, which would lie between the female and male provinces, could be protected by the military, which everyone knows is the most efficiently functioning and reliable institution in Pakistan.
Some would consider the creation of a province for women an act too drastic but their reservations can be responded to by the dire nature of current conditions. In just the very recent past, women have been prevented from voting, buried alive, and bludgeoned to death. Little girls as young as four and five have been subjected to sexual assault and this March, a college student burned herself to death because her alleged rapists were being favoured by the law.
From all of this, it is obvious that Pakistan’s current law enforcement strictures do not possess the skill or the capacity to provide a safe environment for women in a male-dominated world. Instead of piecemeal efforts where women are allowed here and not there, are safe here and not there, and all the ambiguity and chaos they entail, a definitive plan of separation would create concrete borders and boundaries. For those who argue that equality and emancipation and female education are noxious, Western ideas, this would be a uniquely Pakistani one, employed and implemented only in Pakistan.
Finally, there is the thorny question of economics; demarcating a separate terrain for women would ensure that they can continue participating in the economy. In their separate province, women would need no separate quotas and no extra coverings; they would no longer be deemed temptations and contaminations, would pose no more challenges for men. Away and apart, they could build their own worlds, and leave the men of Pakistan to construct their own.