Last week, a Facebook post by a visiting faculty member at the Institute of Business Management (IoBM) went viral. The post said: “Today, I was rudely stopped at the [IoBM] gate by a weird man who said he was the security head, and told that I wasn’t ‘following the dress code’… Ladies, please help me understand, how I am a security threat?” The post included a photo of this female faculty member wearing a white shirt and a long scarf over pants.
The security guard had taken it upon himself to discipline her.
Why do women’s clothing elicit so much attention? Why do they appear as opportunities for men (and women) to install themselves as arbiters of right/wrong? And, significantly, why must we resist such attempts to regulate women?
Until recent history, women all over the world were primarily viewed as commodities; as objects to be owned, traded and enslaved. The movements for women’s enfranchisement and emancipation are fairly recent events that contested this objectification of women. These movements have called for women’s rights to their bodies, property, livelihood, sexuality, etc. However, even as women have started to make advances in many domains, their bodies, particularly their sexual purity, continue to be attached to notions of honour — honour of the family, the tribe/community, and the nation.
To understand these recent efforts at policing women’s clothing, we have to view them as only the latest episodes in long-standing efforts to regulate women in Pakistan. Such a historical perspective will enable us to comprehend how public shaming of women like the female faculty at IoBM become permissible in the first place.
Women played an active role in the nationalist movement for Pakistan. However, upon independence, they were sidelined to predominantly social-service sectors and given minimal political representation. Women’s studies scholar Rubina Saigol observes that progressive legislation put forth by women often faced resistance from clergy, who saw the call for women’s rights as a nod to Western values and culture. In 1948, for instance, the Shariat Bill, which sought to advance women’s economic rights through the inheritance of property, was taken off the table. To counter that, women came out to protest in large numbers and were successful in securing their rights.
Women’s clothes too have always been a point of contestation. Saigol notes that in the early years after the establishment of Pakistan, the ulema in the Zakat Committee refused to sit with female members unless they were in a burqa and over fifty years old. This demand was again raised during the 1980s.
The policing of women took a particularly pernicious turn during General Zia’s regime. In the garb of Islam, massive policies were undertaken to place women securely within the domestic sphere, under the control of the patriarchal family and state. Television anchors, for instance, called for women to exit the public space, threatening the livelihood of many women. Laws such as the Hudood Ordinance made it difficult for women to report gender-based violence. The Law of Evidence reduced women’s testimony to half that of a man. Women’s subordinate position, thus, was literally codified through such laws. When women entered the public — on television shows or the roads — they had to abide by a dress code or male-defined notions of piety.
Social groups — from the state and religious bodies to everyday citizens — debate these issues regularly in order to advance their particularised notions of piety, public welfare, visions of the ideal family, and the nation. In the process, women get reduced to objects at the behest of politicians, social media trolls, and security guards.
Policing of women is legitimised not only through laws and state policies, but also practices of educational institutions and employers. Indeed, it is reported that earlier when female students launched a movement to complain about the moral policing at IoBM, the school administration, instead of siding with the students, asked them to monitor their clothing.
Clearly, our society thinks that it is acceptable to dictate the terms upon which women should be allowed to enter public spaces. At the heart of it, still, is the regressive belief that women are best placed in the home. This view authorises men to gaze at women, reprimand them, or touch them when they decide to enter public spaces to make a living, to educate themselves, or just for pleasure. Stories of sexual harassment on the streets and workplace, unfortunately, are a norm for women in Pakistan.
When I make these arguments, I am often confronted with hyperbolic questions such as: “So you would be okay if women decided to wear mini-skirts in Pakistan?”
The purpose behind not policing women is to give them the space to decide what they want to wear, when, and where. It does not mean that women will necessarily choose to break the norms of a community within which they move about. Indeed, people’s choices are often mediated by the social structures within which they live. Why must we think that if as a society we were to stop opining on women’s clothes that women would necessarily decide to shed their clothes and roam about half-naked? In fact, in recent years middle-class women in Pakistan have actually opted to don the burqa or hijab in large numbers. Should we worry about that trend too? No! And, that is exactly the point. Women deserve the freedom to make choices for themselves. And, we owe it to them to understand that they too want to move about in their social environments with dignity and self-respect.