The Islamic culture of segregation of sexes was based on early marriages that sought to curtail sexual frustration, but economic pressures and evolving social attitudes are rapidly changing this tradition.
Those living in urban areas, particularly the educated middle class, are in their 30s when they get married - and until then, they are expected to live celibate lives. However, it does not seem to work, particularly as the society opens up with the passage of time.
More and more women are coming out of their sheltered places. There are girls’ schools and colleges in every city, town and even in big villages. Thousands of women go out to work every day. So the chances of unmarried men and women meeting each other are stronger now than ever before, which is shifting social and moral attitudes slowly but surely. Until the 1960s, it was common to see veiled women in the cities. In many Islamic countries, such as Pakistan, it has become as less common sight.
This mixing of sexes is not always “benign” as most Muslims would like to believe. Many Muslim men claim to have had more than one affair before their marriage. Most of these affairs, they claim, are platonic but many also acknowledge having sex before marriage and not many have recourse to prostitution. So who are their partners?
If you suggest that they have been intimate with girls from their neighbourhoods, schools and work-places, they get offended. “Our girls? Never. They never do such things,” is the usual answer. This has created a strange attitude toward women. Most men want women before they are married but are reluctant to acknowledge it.
It is considered wrong to express your desires to a woman. But not many hesitate to touch, pinch or even grope a woman when walking in a busy street or bazaar. Rubbing hands against a woman’s body is so common in most Muslim cities that there probably is no woman who has never been rubbed or touched. Some men even try to put their hands inside her veil.
If a man is caught doing this he is beaten, often badly. But if he is not caught, he boasts about his exploits in the bazaar with a sense of pride, like a hunter discussing his successes. There are few who condemn such behaviour, but the same people would very enthusiastically join in beating one of their ‘kind’ if he is caught in the act.
Sometimes Muslims also can be very expressive, very open. Sex is not something you discuss in public but nobody stops the quack doctors and the itinerant sex experts from doing so on the roadside. The expert describes every action and every gesture in vivid detail, often with the help of Western sex magazines. And nobody seems to mind.
It is bad for a woman to show her body in public, so she has to be properly covered when she goes out. A young woman is not even supposed to buy her own under-garments until she is old. Before that, the shopping is done by her husband if she is married or by her mother or grandmother if she is single.
But it is not bad for a shopkeeper to display the same goods. Some stores love to display bras. I have never seen so many bras, in all colours and sizes, displayed from every angle, outside the Muslim world. They stare at you from store windows. Sometimes they festoon the store doorway.
Such displays are more than a mere device to sell the merchandise. Often it is an expression of the store owner’s sexuality or perhaps an attempt to lure a male customer into the shop. Youngsters can be seen staring wide-eyed at the forbidden goods. They often go inside for a closer look and end up buying something else to justify the visit.
Television and newspaper advertisements are full of sexual innuendos. Sometimes women can be seen promoting even exclusively male objects, such as a razor blade or an after-shave. When it comes to appreciating female beauty, Muslims are partial to blondes.
Fashion models in the Islamic world have mastered the art of exposing everything - while at the same time keeping a token cover-up. The qameez or the sari never slips but they can show all the curves and contours.
All this hide-and-seek has made women extremely vulnerable. They are no more the objects behind the veil that they used to be. They are no more protected from the male eyes by the four-walls and the thick curtains that separated their world from that of the men. Yet at the same time they are not allowed to come out and live with confidence.
This half-hidden and half-exposed woman gets neither the respect the Muslim culture claims to give her, nor the economic strength the opportunity to come out and work for a living provides her. She is no longer a traditional Muslim, and therefore, does not enjoy the protection her position behind the veil automatically provided her. And neither is she a fully liberated worker, like those in the West, and therefore lacks the confidence that economic freedom brings.
How does a woman feel living in such an environment?
When I saw M. K., she was playing with clay. With a pair of restless hands she would separate a piece from a lump lying on her table, shape it up, make a figure and flatten it, only to reshape it, make another and flatten it again. I watched her quietly for a few minutes and then asked her why she was doing that.
“I like playing with clay. It is so soft, so gentle, changes shape so easily. But despite its adaptability it has a definite character,” she said.
M was one of five young women artists who were exhibiting their work at a gallery in Islamabad. It was their first major exhibition and they were all excited. These were young, educated, self-confident and forward-looking women who wanted to “come out and make our contribution to developing the place where we are born,” as one of them said.