Put out or be put away —Rafia Zakaria

In a complicated world, the misogyny of those like Maulana Ghafar has begun to parade itself as protecting against the leering ignominy of men. At the same time, the patriarchal reduction of women as objects of beauty meant for male consumption has also disguised itself as supposedly urbane progressivism

Maulana Abdul Ghafar, Imam of the newly re-opened and infamous Lal Mosque, has issued a fatwa against President Asif Ali Zardari for shaming the nation by making “indecent gestures, filthy remarks and [sic!] repeated praise of a non-Muslim lady wearing a short skirt”. That’s the Zardari-Sarah Palin episode, if you please!Last year, the Maulana had also issued a fatwa against ex-Minister for Women’s Affairs, Nilofer Bakhtiar, for having hugged an unrelated man. He thus seems to endorse equal opportunity condemnation when it comes to monitoring the behaviour of Pakistani leaders abroad.

At the other end of the spectrum is the view expressed by Fasih Ahmed in this newspaper (“Asif, Sarah and the tree they sat in”, Daily Times, September 30): “This was no affront to feminism. Mrs Plain was not asked to iron the First Shirts, nor did she seem ruffled by the president’s small talk. Praising thine beauty has its diplomatic precedents. It was customary for foreign dignitaries to wax lyrical in the Elizabethan court. More recently, in the neo-con court, our former Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz … attempted to unctuously woo the dark lady of American foreign policy.”

In Mr Ahmed’s view apparently doing anything short of asking a woman to iron a man’s shirts is fair game. Also, what was admissible a couple of centuries ago in England after all should uncontrovertibly be admissible behaviour in the 21st century.

Are these two perspectives, that of Maulana Abdul Ghafar, a hard-line cleric, and of Mr Ahmed’s, a liberal educated man, the only choices available to Pakistani women (and men) in assessing Zardari’s behaviour?

On one hand is the irate Maulana, angry not just at the President for his alleged lasciviousness but also that a non-Muslim woman, refusing to adhere to the strict niqabi dress code, is being complimented on her beauty. On the other, the perspective of Mr Ahmed (that President Zardari himself might share) that it was fair for the President to make the remarks he did while meeting a woman who was there as a public figure.

Both views objectify women and focus on her physical attributes. Through their statements, each offers what they believe the women deserve in this world, the segregated confinement of a life cosseted and hidden from the public sphere in the case of the Maulana and, in the case of Mr Ahmed, one where drooling men fawn over a woman’s physical attributes as measures of their capacity to lead, govern or otherwise conduct themselves in the world.

As a woman, I find it difficult to discern which of the two options conveniently (and unabashedly) provided to us by men is worse.

For the Maulana, the acceptable woman is one who swathes herself in black, wields an ominous stick and happily accepts that the only religiously mandated position for her when appearing in public is in a shroud that completely obscures her identity.

It is easy to denounce the misogyny of clerics such as Maulana Ghafur and the pages of many newspapers in Pakistan and other parts of the Muslim world have routinely done so. It is more complicated to denounce the more subtle and yet also demeaning form of sexism that tries to pass itself of as “courtly” or “gentlemanly” flirting. This is because the latter is more able to masquerade as praise or actual appreciation of women, thus concealing the fact that it too ultimately emerges from the root idea that women are from beginning to end, sexual objects.

In the case of Maulana Ghafar, they are sexual objects that must be hidden such that unassuming (and always righteous) males are shielded from their distracting and seductive wiles as they go about trying to be good Muslims. In the case of Mr Ahmed’s view, women are sexual objects who must accept comments about their seductive sexuality and offers for hugs with equanimity and indeed as compliments even in professional interactions. Having rebelled against the oppressive segregation of the mullah, they must with humility accept the drooling praise of any man they encounter even when the meeting has absolutely nothing to do with their being female.

The irony thus is that both views are linked. Both views focus on the physical and the Maulana’s view that women present a danger is actually endorsed by the “enlightened” view that the only way to deal with a woman is by flirting with her?

In sum, as Tahira Abdullah, a member of Pakistan’s Women’s Action Forum aptly described “he was seeing her as a woman instead of as a politician and a leader”. In Pakistan, however, the concept of treating women not always and constantly as objects of beauty but rather as individuals worthy of respect for the job they do is a seemingly alien concept. The demarcators of the choice, between sexism on one hand and oppressive misogyny on the other are both indicators of how devastating the twin ravages of patriarchy and religious extremism are.

In a complicated world, the misogyny of those like Maulana Ghafar has begun to parade itself as protecting against the leering ignominy of men. At the same time, the patriarchal reduction of women as objects of beauty meant for male consumption has also disguised itself as supposedly urbane progressivism.

Somewhere amid these two forces both masquerading as representations of the true interests of Pakistani women, lies the forgotten idea that women are neither objects to be hidden nor objects to be leered at but rather human beings worthy of respect for the job they do rather than the way they look.

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at rafia.zakaria@gmail.com



Source: Daily Times, 4/10/2008

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