May 272008

And so stand we, hijacked by a group of angry zealots obsessed with trying to enslave half the world’s population in the name of religion. We watch them quietly as they demarcate boundaries, chalk out lines which women must not cross

There is a hotel in Jeddah which sports a rather unusual sign by its swimming pool. It is a sign that thousands walk by daily. And yet few, if any, eyebrows are raised; few, if any, sensibilities are offended. It is a sign that, for me at least, is a scathing reminder of an archaic mindset that continues to plague us, a cause for alarm. But for many, it is just a sign that reads: “No dogs or women allowed”, nothing more, nothing less.

A few weeks ago, a student of mine returned from Umrah, full of stories about her wonderful trip with her grandparents. And yet she could not stop talking about this poolside sign. She related the story to me with wide-eyed amazement, how she thought she was seeing things and how she rubbed her eyes to see correctly. And when she realised what the sign actually said, she says she thought of me.

I wondered, for the longest time, what it was about that hateful sign that brought me to her mind. Over the course of the year, we have discussed apartheid, the separation of races in South Africa. We have discussed Rosa Parks, the African American woman who refused to sit in the “black” section of a public bus. And we have discussed the British Raj, a time in which many restaurants in British India had signs that said “No dogs and Indians allowed”.

Yet no matter how inhumane, how shameless the segregation, in class it was merely academic, a thing of the past, an abhorrence of history to point fingers at in much the same way one does so at a weird science exhibit. To watch the abhorrence pop out of the black and white pages of history, however, and mutate into a real-life, technicolour experience was for her too surreal an encounter; so surreal that it left her standing on the flagstone floor of the hotel, rubbing her eyes.

She had heard me, all year, talk about the dignity and the rights given to women by Islam. She had heard me talk about how our Holy Prophet (PBUH) elevated the status of women, doing away with misogynistic customs of the pre-Islamic Bedouins, curtailing the rights of men, even giving woman the right to inherit, something which was revolutionary for the time. His own wife, Hazrat Bibi Khadija (RA), the first woman to embrace Islam, was not someone who practiced Taliban-stye purdah but was instead a bold, confident and well respected businesswoman known for her intellect.

And yet, instead of taking his example and moving forward, we seem to have regressed. Instead of imbibing the essence of the progressiveness and humanity this great man embodied, we have desecrated it.

And so stand we, hijacked by a group of angry zealots obsessed with trying to enslave half the world’s population in the name of religion. We watch them quietly as they demarcate boundaries, chalk out lines which women must not cross. Those who dare to are met with shock, hostility and, even, violence. In some parts of Pakistan, women who leave their homes without the dupatta are spit upon; others, not quite as lucky, have acid thrown on their faces. In a hotel in Saudi Arabia, women and dogs are clumped in the same category.

Let me be clear: I am not condoning topless sunbathing nor do I consider it a sign of being progressive. I am simply condemning an attitude that equates women with dogs.

Recently I joined a UN-based women’s group called the Global Peace Initiative of Women. In March, I attended “Making Way for the Feminine”, a global summit that brought together some of the most extraordinary women leaders from around the world; senior women religious and spiritual leaders, women from business, government and civil society as well as a special delegation of young community leaders and professionals.

There were women from all walks of life and from all fields — from education to law to medicine — brought together by their unwavering dedication to social service. I think of all these great souls, all these devoted beings contributing so much to the world. Why would anyone want to keep them locked up behind four walls? Why would anyone bar them from the public sphere?

Here, in Pakistan, there are acceptable and unacceptable places for women to be seen in, acceptable and unacceptable activities for them to partake in. It is okay to be seen shopping for food or clothes. It is okay to be seen chauffeuring your children around. Only those who have ever stepped outside the demarcated boundaries know of the repercussions. Remember what happened to the women who dared to participate in the Lahore marathon?

Recently I gave in to the demands of my seven year-old and took him and Queenie, our five month-old Bloodhound, to the park. It was barely an act of lewdness. And yet I was met by the most vulgar, most profane of comments. I guess dogs on leashes are acceptable only if they are accompanied by a male (servant preferably). A woman on the other side of the leash, however, is not okay.

As I drove home that day, stunned by the reaction I had caused, I couldn’t stop thinking of that poolside sign in Jeddah. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind that here in Pakistan, women and dogs were viewed with equal contempt. And both, unless supervised by an appropriate male, were equally unwelcome.

Ayeda Naqvi is a journalist and a teacher and can be contacted at
Courtesy: Daily Times, 27/5/2008

 Posted by at 9:17 am

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