I was perturbed and exasperated. Yet again I had missed an opportunity to help a fellow Pakistani in need. Having arrived in Dubai in the same flight as I, the woman travelling by the same flight, had changed her appearance: the beautiful blue Chaddar was gone; instead she was now adorned by a pair of high heels and bright red lips. She couldn’t carry her luggage and the queue was long. As I took a step towards her – and although she looked desperate for help – seeing me take that step, she turned in haste and skipped three queues to the left. Like a deer caught in the headlights. Now she was at the farthest edge, still struggling with her luggage, but far away from any querying eyes. It made no difference to me that she had appeared to be swallowed by the big blue Chaddar when we left Benazir Bhutto International Airport and that she was standing now in only the essential clothing, giving any super model a run for her money. I do not judge people for their profession or their outward appearance so more power to her and her choices. Yet the incidence paved way for the brain storm to brew.
The immigration queue crawled. I was finally at the luggage belt after two hours of arrival. I picked up my bags, and within a few more minutes, I was at the backseat of a cab, on my way to my apartment in Media city. The chatty Bangladeshi driver asked if I was from India and I told him I am from Pakistan. He said “but why don’t you wear abaya like other Pakistani women”? And I couldn’t help but think, if the woman with blue Chaddar would wear an abaya? And what would she achieve by adorning herself with a veil? Why the veil or the Chaddar is used or forced to be used as per convenience? Why “club girls” from my country are most in demand the world over? And why yet our society stares down women?
The cab was speeding under limit and the cabby was chatting constantly. He told me everything I had missed during the last ten days that I spent away, from accidents to labour laws, every major subject was explored. I participated eagerly in the “discussion” as it kept my mind away from other glum thoughts. It had been my first visit to Pakistan after the 16/12 APS tragedy. Right from the touchdown in Rawalpindi, I had observed everything about the Pakistani way of life. Evil always seeks our permission to strike. Exactly when did we, the citizens, permit this evil to entwine itself with our social fabric?
The Bengali driver had no clue I was brooding and gossiping at the same time. We finally arrived at my destination and he helped me with the luggage. Before leaving he said “Madam, you need anything, call me, Ok? No worry, I am here your brother”. Lo and Behold! I had a brother and I wasn’t clad in a burqa or Chaddar as means of gaining someone’s sympathy or respect!
The Chaddar in its essence was imposed as a mandatory part of national dress for women of Pakistan, by the late Gen. Zia ul Haq. He first introduced it through the PTV presenters, giving it a “la Vogue” stature. After the assassination of Mr. Zia ul Haq in 1988; the first general elections took place. The country found its first ever female Prime Minster in the form of Late Benazir Bhutto, who was coincidentally, also the first female Prime Minister of the Muslim world. She was a powerful female figure. Her victory brought a sense of elation and true empowerment to common women. Millions of girls grew up admiring the late Bibi, wrapped in a traditional Chaddar, for this symbolic empowerment; they also grew up recognizing Chaddar as a symbol of respect and grace.
By no means can a well-covered women be judged unless she puts herself for the evaluation by wearing a Chaddar to hide her flaws. But flaws are natural. Flaws are what make us human beings. So why such repression of humanity should be acceptable to any of us?
The birth of Pakistan in 1947 had coincided with the great turmoil of 19th and 20th century. Several names of this era are described with tall words as all of them rose against a suffocating and oppressive set of circumstances. Hellen Keller and Viktor Frankl are examples of people who survived oppression and adversities to leave behind legacies, which have shaped the destinies of both Europe and America. Islam, a most important element of the creation of Pakistan, has its own tales of Bravery and Courage. Khadija (RA) was a successful merchant in a time filled with ignorance and hate. She went on to become the pillar of strength for our Prophet (PBUH). And lastly, our Prophet (PBUH) is the greatest example of grace and honour, in the face of severe hostility and aversion.
As I pushed my luggage onto the lift my mind etched out a set of questions. How was it possible, with guidance of Sunnah and Quran and by the example of Quaid and Iqbal, that the people of Pakistan have come to repress their uniqueness, individuality and disown their natural flaws? Why do we ridicule the weaknesses in others and subsequently are forced to hide our own humanity. Is this the reason that our collective self-esteem has been crippled due to this attitude of repression?
Instead of living by the examples of Courage set by the Quaid and our forefathers, most Pakistanis today live by an unstable and volatile paradigm in which “exercising one’s free will” is a cause worthy of mockery, dejection and even murder. Is this not the very extremism that we are fighting? These are the same Pakistanis who comprise, the supposed to be, balanced civil society of our country. The woman with blue Chaddar had left me with quick conclusions and a struggle to try and balance this paradox, a great unbalanced equation which is a society that leaves Pakistanis innately embarrassed of their identity and distances them from each other. We are compelled to act peculiarly; most of our dealings take place under the table, and then we hide from each other, expecting Divine miracles in our personal and national battles. At our ‘finest’, we are ‘holier than thou’ and mock anyone who dares show a weakness. Isolated we stand, individually and as a nation. Although Malala Yusufzai (and Syeda Ghulam Fatima, at the time of this writing), have brought world’s encouragement, yet the solutions of our social oppression and guilt, lie not in individual accolades, rather they are in a collective courage we lost long ago, to look ourselves in the mirror.
Today, we stand at the debris of a wreckage, which was once a “social conscious” or the idea of a “great, free nation for all women and men”. We find ourselves grappling with terms to describe our own moral collapse. We call it “extremism” and we say late Gen. Zia ul Haq “invented” it. We don’t say that it is us, the people of Pakistan, who gave up their free will to choose better for ourselves and our generations. Our women chose to wear their Chaddars and abayas as a subjugation note and chose to stay oppressed as slaves, by their own thoughts and ideas while our men and the powerful repeatedly opted for corruption and abuse unchecked. We are responsible for the termite of “extremism” in our social behaviour and only we can eradicate it. But do we have the courage to look in the mirror?
“Why hast thou made me born in this country, the inhabitant of which is satisfied with being a slave?” – Allama Mohammad Iqbal.
— The writer is a freelance columnist.