Embarrassing Women

Professor Nergis Mavalvala is the latest sensation in Pakistan. While Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif – heading a government that banned Valentine’s Day a couple of days after Mavalvala made headlines – has praised the MIT professor, Pakistan’s middle class has gone gaga over Prof Mavalvala.

Before long, she will be either ignored by her middle-class Pakistani fans or subjected to a malicious smear campaign Malala-style. She is neither a ‘good Muslim’, nor an ‘achi aurat’. In fact, she is not Muslim at all. She is a Zoroastrian (Parsi). What is worse is the matter of her sexual orientation. In an interview with a Pakistani daily, she has advocated sexual rights. Ironically, she is “baffled by how much interest there is” in Pakistan in the discovery she has made.

Her bafflement will soon be compounded when one ‘scholar’ of international repute explains next month for our sexually disoriented MIT professor that the much-hyped discovery had been known to the ulema for 1400 years. Her bewilderment will know no bounds on reading a columnist expose the Zionist links between Parsis and Jews. In the days to come, this Queer-Parsi quisling will be Malalafied by our Patriot Brigade.

Satirical exaggeration aside, Pakistani women have always posed a problem for the country’s puritan ideologues. Fatima Jinnah comes to mind. At a time when self-appointed field marshal, Ayub Khan, was ruling the roost through a reign of terror, this old woman challenged him. She was vilified, slandered and declared a deserter. She did not budge. She lost the election. Ayub lost the legitimacy (if there was any at all). Ironically, the Jamaat-e-Islami, captained by its founding father at the time, supported Fatima Jinnah’s bid for presidency.

Likewise, the Westernised Bhutto women iconised the struggle against Ziaul Haq’s puritan dictatorship. At a time when the Zia regime had imposed a strict ban on any public mobilisation, Begum Nusrat Bhutto decided to attend a cricket match at Lahore’s Qaddafi Stadium. It was an astute strategy. But Ziaul Haq’s witless repressive apparatuses had no appreciation for intelligence.

To teach Begum Bhutto a lesson, she was baton-charged along with her comrades. Despite censor, Begum Bhutto’s picture with a bleeding head was run by a section of the press the next morning. The way Tank Man’s picture at Tiananmen Square became an embarrassing signpost for China’s ruling elite, Begum Sahiba’s picture achieved an emblematic status in the 1980s.

This time, the Jamaat did not repeat the mistake of the 1960s. Benazir Bhutto was not merely declared an un-Islamic candidate to head the Islamic Republic, she was also subjected to a character assassination campaign. Sheikh Rashid of Lal Haveli was particularly notorious in this regard. The kind of sexist language he employed at a Mochi Gate jalsa infuriated even the right wing that claims to guard the ideology of Pakistan.

I remember a speech by Maulana Abdul Sattar Niazi, once a feature of Pakistani politics, as a leader of the Jamiat Ulema Pakistan (JUP). Opposing Benazir’s bid for top political office, he pointed out that a woman cannot think rationally during her menstrual cycle. To an amused public, he painted a picture of a pregnant prime minister representing Pakistan at the UN. To her credit, Benazir was never deterred by this conservative whoopla. Ironically, now every puritan Islamic party has women MNAs, menstrual cycles notwithstanding.

From Asma Jahangir to Malala Yousufzai, countless Pakistani women challenge patriarchy on a daily basis. At times, they confront it upfront. Sometimes, they negotiate their way. But they refuse to submit.

The writer is a freelance contributor.


Published on The News