WE are both waiting, she in her safe, black, nylon cocoon, its sweaty discomforts hidden from prying eyes, me in my cotton dupatta that doesn’t quite hide the fact that I am human and female.
We are united by our vigil. Periodically, she stares at me, peering from under neatly threaded eyebrows or looking at the stopped clock on the wall. On the row of chairs opposite us, a group of men sit watching and waiting. She appears unfazed by either the clock or the men; I feel hunted by both.
There was a time when I would have pitied this woman, attached to her a condescending tale of ignorance and repression, imagined a domineering father, an untrusting, jealous husband or even a masochistic desire to scale new heights of heat-induced claustrophobia.
However, those were the naïve feminist musings of old, born of a time when some bits of hope could still be strung together to demand a place for women in Pakistan’s public sphere. They were past delusions, possibly misguided then and a liability today, optimistic then and irrelevant now.
If the goal is survival in Pakistan’s rapidly changing ideological ecosystem, my burka-encased compatriot is the adaptable, hardy lizard destined to persevere and I the dinosaur condemned to extinction.
This is the Pakistan of women paraded naked, where moral calculations regarding the covering of women’s bodies are available for all to see — in Meerwala, in Vehari and now in Haripur. Once you do away with the outrage, the condemnation rendered perfunctory when a village jirga orders yet another sexual assault on a woman, the logic of the calculation begins to emerge. The more you cover, the more moral you are — a direct correlation between piety and fabric, sanctity and the unseen. These magical few yards of cloth can deliver so much: moral elevation and personal space, an escape from budgetary wardrobe constraints and even the onerous demands of physical upkeep.
Once these constraints, undoubtedly owing to the seepage of those awful imported western judgments, are abandoned the potential of the burka as an unsung solution to vexing conundrums begins to emerge. The leering boss always pushing invitations to tea, the hawker that makes kissing sounds every time you walk by, and a host of other similarly annoying males can all be shut up and shut out, even glared and glowered at with the power of covered-up revenge.
Women in burkas can stare with abandon, peer with curiosity, even laugh with derision with formerly unknown freedom at any and every male that crosses their path. Even love, the instant product of a few sustained stares, or Internet chats in lovelorn Karachi, becomes more elevated under the auspices of the burka, transcending the ugly superficialities of looks. For the hapless and unconnected, the female inhabitants of waiting rooms such as the one which birthed this epiphany, the burka can become a source of power, cleverly hiding motives and morals and diligently collecting and storing information without giving anything away.
Its austerity allows little room for the evaluations of class and status, ethnicity and education. You could be a religiously inclined, wealthy housewife or a mother of five from Orangi, an 18-year-old geared up to meet a Facebook boyfriend or a college professor off to teach a class. The possibilities are endless, and in them exists the only anonymity available in a judgmental society — an invisibility otherwise impossible to procure.
Facelessness, long condemned, may even produce the unity so far unavailable to Pakistani women, uniting mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, madam and servant, under its cheerful, equalising ambit.
But there are serious and not merely satirical reasons for advocating a reinvention of the burka. Apart from the ignominies perpetrated by rural jirgas, it was only last December that the Federal Shariat Court issued an order (subsequently challenged) through which it attempted to nullify changes made to the Hudood Ordinances of 1979 through the Women’s Protection Act of 2006, so that rape victims attempting to file an FIR at a police station would once again be liable for prosecution for adultery. In effect, an effort was made to resurrect laws that criminalised women unable to arrange for their own security, or those too poor or weak to contest accusers.
The persistence of this point of view and the societal silence around it represents the collective belief of Pakistan’s liberal and conservative governments, religious leaders and policymakers, that it is ultimately always women who are at fault in cases of sexual assault.
The project of reinventing the burka may not be your cup of tea, the luxuries of being male or wealthy or the ignorance of an insulated existence making such a pursuit superfluous. But while you can reject the specifics, their underpinnings demand consideration.
The mindset underpinning support for the zina laws, the horror of another humiliated female assaulted as a result of the involvement of a jirga, present a glimpse into how solitary, helpless and condemned a Pakistani woman is if she becomes a target. Survival demands adaptation; if changing the laws has not changed the mindset and changing social mores has become a joke, perhaps changing strategies is the only recourse.
Under the shelter of the burka Pakistani women may not find hope, but they could discover bitter humour in despair. Where ideology and argument, analysis and education have all failed, perhaps trickery and secrecy will succeed. Dark times call for dark garments and these are black days indeed.
The writer is an attorney teaching political philosophy and constitutional law.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney and human rights activist. She is a columnist for DAWN Pakistan and a regular contributor for Al Jazeera America, Dissent, Guernica and many other publications.
She is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon Press 2015). She tweets @rafiazakaria
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