On Liberal Extremists, Women, and other Anti National Elements

A version of this piece was published on Tribune.com.pk on June 14, 2016

Pakistanis are extremely resourceful people. We work with what we get. When life gave us the proverbial lemons in the guise of terrorism and religious extremism we rose the occasion by coining the term ‘liberal extremists’ to protect our social fabric from the menace of tolerance, human rights, and other Jewish conspiracies. The ‘liberal extremist’ is the Right’s brilliant attempt at tapping into the powerful global constituency against violence and extremism in a post 9/11 world. Someone recently said that ‘when you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression’. In the case of Pakistan when you have political leaders defending ‘honor’ killings as part of our cultural heritage, radical ideas like actually not hitting women at all are experienced as ‘liberal extremism’ threatening our moral values. Combine that with some good old ‘we must represent both sides’ and you have a veritable circus of religious political parties which cannot win an election but stay relevant by highlighting the various ways in which the masculinity of the Pakistani man is under threat by these out of control women. To my knowledge, ‘liberal extremism’ hasn’t caused mass murder, nor do liberal extremists go around declaring individuals wajab ul qatl which has become something of a national hobby. But don’t let such details bog you down.

Pakistanis in general and the clerics in particular spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about women and how to protect men from them. So much so that we allocate an annual Rs 100 million to the Council of Islamic Ideology to produce cutting edge research on what it means to be a woman. And may I add that the CII has risen to the challenge with aplomb. Recently it recommended criminalizing ads for milk formula and enforcing mandatory breastfeeding for the first two years of an infant’s life. This gem was unfortunately lost amidst all the liberal extremist brouhaha over the recommendation to legalize ‘light beating’ of wives. Even after Maulana Sherani carefully explained that no bones should be broken.

The wrangling between clerics and those dubbed ‘liberal extremists’ has reached a crescendo in recent months – sparked by the attempts to pass a women’s protection bill in Punjab. The latter we are told is the epitome of liberal extremism and will destroy our family structure which is apparently held together only by the ability of men to beat their wives. This row has also brought to the forefront the various forms of violence against women. Within the last few weeks alone at least three women have been burnt alive. A couple was shot dead in Lahore on Friday for marrying against their family’s wishes. In addition you have the regular garden-variety misogyny directed towards female public figures.

You see the problem is that Pakistan is a society currently overrun by women occupying public space in ways that threaten our carefully constructed notions of womanhood. They are running all over the place marrying whoever they like, resisting attempts at silencing them, heading organizations and employing men; and of course refusing to be beaten Its not that we don’t like women. We simply have trouble wrapping our heads around the idea of a woman who refuses to go down without a fight. We can even sympathize with female victims – provided they are dead. The teenager burnt alive in Lahore a few days ago has all our deepest sympathies because she actually died. Had she survived and told the world her story we would have promptly dubbed her as anti-Pakistan. You see as far as we are concerned women can only occupy two subject positions – victim or vamp (please refer to Hum TV dramas for more information). Malala had the audacity to not just survive but also demonstrate a commitment to living by moving out of the country thereby betraying her anti-national intentions. Mukhtaran Mai didn’t even have the decency to try and kill herself like the virtuous sisters of Bollywood heroes whose sole purpose in life is to enable their brothers to establish their manliness by punishing their rapists. It’s easy to understand our collective national angst in the face of these women who defy our conception of female virtue by refusing to sit in a corner and weep. Mukhtaran Mai even went and got married. The horror!

And then you have the everyday horror of unladylike women in the government and media. A few days ago, Hafiz Hamdullah’s antics set the local social media on fire. While you may be aghast at the sight of a man threatening to rape and murder a woman on national TV, please spare a moment for the horror experienced by this gentleman at being confronted by Marvi Sirmid – a woman who refused to shut up even when told to do so in unequivocal terms by a man. No wonder the thoroughly shaken molvi sahib informed Ms Sirmid that she is a woman trying to be a husband. After all what kind of a woman would disregard such a direct order from a man. To top it all the show was also being hosted by a woman who alternately begged and yelled at him to quieten down. Astagfirrullah bro! This is the stuff molvi nightmares are made of. Fortunately, we have the explanatory concept of liberal extremism to understand this distressing sight of a man being ‘provoked’ into physically attack a woman. As a few people were thoughtful enough to point out, ‘both were equally wrong’. Ms Sirmid’s yelling at the good maulana was an example of liberal extremism and just as reprehensible as the latter’s threat to rape Ms Sirmid and her mother; threat to kill her; and physically attack her. Thats right. Rape and murder threats are just as terrible as a shouting woman.

This is only the most recent and the most sensational episode of a Pakistani man being thoroughly horrified by the refusal of women to sit down and shut up. This ordeal is not confined to the much maligned molvi brigade. Only a few days ago Khawaja Asif felt an acute threat to his masculinity by the sound of Shireen Mazari’s voice in the National Assembly. Not only was this woman arguing against a man, she also had the audacity to not look or sound feminine enough. Physical beauty as we all know is a rent that women must pay for existing. As in the case of Hamdullah sahib, Khuwaja Asif was forced to reconsider – that too right in the middle of a NA session – what it means to be a man if you have women opposing you and doing so in a voice with none of the child like delicacy of Lata Mangeshkar. How are men supposed to run this country when their masculinity is constantly under assault? Hafiz Hamdullah is the chairperson of the senate committee on Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony. How can he promote harmony with other religions when he has to waste time threatening Muslim women into submission?

A few months ago we also witnessed the riveting spectacle of Mufti Naeem engaged in a shouting match with Uzma Bukhari on TV. Muti sahib was trying to explain to a recalcitrant Ms Bukhari that we have no need for a women’s protection bill as domestic violence, rape, and molestation do not occur in Pakistan. A colleague hastened to inform me that siding with either one of them would be ‘equally stupid’ as the mufti was making ridiculous claims and the woman had ‘thrown a lady’s grace out the window’ by shouting on TV. I think he put me down as a ‘liberal extremist’ when I coolly informed him that in a country with no comprehensive bill for the protection of women, every single woman should throw her grace -whatever that is – out the window.

One of the most harmful results of liberal extremism is that it makes our country look bad. Take Shermeen Obaid-Chinoy for instance. Before she started making her defamatory films, Pakistan was a top tourist destination and widely recognized as a world leader in its efforts to protect human rights. No wonder some of the most popular men across the globe like Osama Bin Ladin and Mullah Mansoor chose to retire and vacation here. Honor killing is not an issue in Pakistan. Look at all the women who are not being burnt. What we really need – as pointed out by Maulana Diesel – is a Husband’s Protection Bill to ensure that every husband can exercise his right to beat his wife and as in the case of Hafiz Hamdullah other people’s wives too. We need all hands on the deck to protect our social and family structures.

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