Pakistan: MMAch ado about nothing

South Asia Citizen's Wire
All this business about 'religious' extremists attacking a marathon because women were participating in it, and then presenting a bill to the National Assembly seeking to criminalise 'indecent' advertisements brings inevitable memories of the Zia years.
The forces that the General unleashed through the so-called Islamisation process (meant to keep him in power, Uncle Sam happy and the Red Bear at bay) are alive and well, and stronger than ever in Musharraf's Pakistan, almost 17 years after his predecessor's departure from Earth.
When Gen. Zia's establishment initially began the process of curtailing the visibility of women in the public arena, there were no 'directives' to start with. But the forces of the religious right were implicitly empowered enough to walk into ministries, institutions and departments, and issue verbal orders about what was and was not acceptable. Most of the heads of these ministries, institutions and departments scrambled to prove their worthiness, outdoing the king in loyalty and the pope in piety, or whatever you want to call it, falling into line with the particular definition of religiosity. It gradually became almost a criminal activity to engage in the classical arts particularly dance, painting, and sculpture.

As women's sports began to feel the heat, Shoaib Hashmi penned a skit about the women's hockey team. Having got the axe from TV for their satirical programmes, Such Gup and Tal Matol, the Hashmis and their talented team began doing skits at private stage performances. With due apologies to Mr Hashmi, I recall the women's hockey skit as being something like this.

Hashmi: And now let's introduce the Captain of the Pakistan Women's Hockey Team, Samina Ahmed! Ladies and gentlemen, please give her a big hand.

Enter Samina Ahmed, jogging, blowing a whistle: Tweeeet!

Hashmi: Samina, thank you for joining us, I know you have a busy schedule. People here would like to know about the women's hockey team, I believe you're practicing hard these days...

Samina: Yes, we are (tweeet!). Very hard.

Hashmi: Apparently you had some problems recently...?

Samina: Oh yes, we had some problems. They said we couldn't play wearing shorts.

Hashmi: Oh. So then what did you do?

Samina: We said fine, we'll play in track suits (Tweeet!)

Hashmi: Ah. So that's alright then?

Samina: No, well, then they said that this is un-Islamic too. So we said fine, we'll play wearing shalwar kameez.

Hashmi: And how did that work out?

Samina: It was ok for a while, but then someone said that even this is all un-Islamic. They said we had to wear burqas.

Hashmi: What? You mean you're playing wearing burqas?

Samina: Yes...

Hashmi: Really?

Samina: Yes. But then they said that even if we're wearing burqas, the spectators will know that underneath those burqas are women...

Hashmi: Oh dear! So our women's hockey is out of competition...?

Samina: No, actually, we're going to win (Tweeeet!).

Hashmi: Win? What do you mean you're going to win?

Samina: Well you see, under the burqas, is the men's hockey team... (Tweeeeet! jogs off).

Laughter. Applause. Back to square one. In more ways than one.

Jokes aside, the skit illustrates the warped, self-righteous mindset that has over the years morphed into violent vigilantism.

Fifteen years ago, following Gen. Ziaul Haq's televised address to the nation on June 25, 1988 in which he once again reiterated the need to 'Islamise' all areas of life in Pakistan, the state-owned media went into a flap. That same day, television headquarters in Islamabad recalled all advertisements featuring women for 'review'. A phone call from the District Magistrate galvanised the police and cinema owners into action: posters and hoardings displaying women were draped with black curtains; some were removed altogether.

Ostensibly, the government wanted to eliminate the exploitation of women, a very commendable motive. However, there was (and is) a Censor Board and the PTV Code of Advertising Standards and Practice that all filmmakers and advertising agencies had to go through.

Some questionable images might sometimes slip by and women were unnecessarily used in advertisements (as they still are). But recalling all material featuring women gave out the signal that women should simply not be seen in public. That is the view upheld by those who continue to cling to Zia's obscurantist legacy.

Today, these self-appointed keepers of the public morality feel justified in blackening women's faces on bill-boards all over the country and physically attacking women participating in public sporting events. This is the mindset that the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal is attempting to institutionalise and legalise with its proposed Prohibition of Indecent Advertisements Bill 2005, presented to the National Assembly recently.

They have a right to their views -- as long as they don't impose them on others. Meanwhile, Akhter Shah captured the issue eloquently in a recent editorial cartoon (The News, April 5th)... as the world moves forward, it does seem like they have their backs to the starting line.

By Beena Sarwar, published in The News on Sunday - April 17, 2005