COVER up the women, and most — if not all — social ills will magically disappear. The district education office in Haripur clearly subscribes to that blinkered and ignorant view: earlier this week, it introduced a dress code for girl students in its jurisdiction making it mandatory for them to wear an abaya, gown or chador. The circular stated that the measure was being taken “in order to protect them from any unethical incident”. Elaborating further, an official from the education office told this paper that a dupatta or ‘half chador’ was not enough to protect them from increasing incidence of harassment and providing police protection to every girl student was not possible.
Observing purdah by choice is one thing, but being forced to do so is another matter altogether. The view that the female gender must follow rigid norms of behaviour if she is to keep herself safe from the predatory male gaze, finds many takers in this patriarchal society. Boys, after all, will be boys. This is more than a simplistic notion; it is a dangerous one. It legitimises a power imbalance in which the man is the ‘hunter’ and the woman the ‘prey’. Moreover, when men’s bad behaviour is seen as a ‘natural’ consequence of women behaving in a manner that arouses the male gender’s worst instincts, such reasoning is presented as a mitigating circumstance even in violent crimes such as rape. If they choose to go to court, rape victims are often forced to endure — at the investigation and trial stage — intrusive questioning and the imputation that they ‘brought it on themselves’. It is extremely unfortunate that the parents of some students in Haripur are reportedly supportive of the education board’s move. They should, instead, educate their sons that respect for the opposite gender, or those who identify as transgender, is not predicated on apparel or lifestyle. And state authorities, rather than policing the bodies of women, should ensure that harassers are punished as per the law.
Published in Dawn, September 15th, 2019