There are people like Amelia Bloomer, who refused to conform to barely breathable items of statuesque costumes. Princess Abida Sultan who has many photographs from pre-partition in riding gear, strongly showcasing that being a woman wasn’t going to stop her from enjoying the finer things in life.
Then there are women like Jane Austen, the quintessential lady, who spent their lives and legacies filled with wanton love. The image of Fatima Jinnah, who shadows in the history of Pakistan as the caretaker – the unmarried sister dedicated to the cause of the man who fought to make our country, always in the crisp white gharara with a dupatta perched ever so slightly on top of her head.
But of course you know all this, you’ve seen, read more likely than I have.
You’ve also seen the portrayal of women in both Pakistani and Indian screens. There was the Shehnaz Shiekh from Ankahi, a clumsy yet lovable girl who finds a job and falls in love with an older man who is not emotionally available. And Sana, Ms Moin’s character did this all with short sleeves and a stole-like dupatta slung like a scarf. All on 1980’s PTV.
Later, Ms Sheikh as Zara in Tanhaayian, a young girl who matured into a willful woman and made enough money to buy back her parents house lost to debt. Managing to fall in love eventually with her best friend who nurses her back to health. And Marina Khan, later on in Dhoop Kinare, a young doctor, keen to move up in her career, often snubbed by an older woman played by Badar Khalil but a strong woman nonetheless.
And across the border we had the Sri Devis, the Rekhas, the Meenakshis, and then the Madhuris which led the centre stage to the size zero, slightly emaciated leading ladies of today. From Indian cinema, we learnt the following:
1. Always dressing in white makes you pure; no matter how many men you have had sex with, before marriage. 2. If you add elbow-length churiyan to it, you may make a better score for the prospective mother-in-law to see her heirloom bangles (which she loathed at age 18 as well) on your arm. 3. The demure, wistful eyelash flutter speaks miles of your chastity and innocence which demarks you as the proper desi girl which is every mother-in-law’s dream. 4. Wearing shalwar kameez or a saree automatically makes you proper, even if under it you are wearing violently animal printed Victoria’s Secret lingerie. 5. The modern girl always wears jeans. That makes her a ‘fast’ girl. Unacceptable to mother-in-law’s and men to take home. They are only good for one thing, and men will use this ‘fast’ girl as a test drive to get to the real girl that Mommy likes. Oh and Fast Girls also smoke. And are sometimes shown with a glass of wine. 6. You must, as a woman, bear all the zulm and evil in the world, just like Sita did, for you will be rewarded. Patience has virtue after all, and bearing the burden of mistreatment, cheating and/or alcoholic husbands, mother-in-laws that set you on fire, etc. means only one thing: Keep quiet, and keep calm. Bhagwan will in the end of the film give you a happily ever after (usually with the same man who has run to the Church/Temple/Mosque/Gurdwara to repent few million times and now is a changed man).
Now, you come to modern day Pakistani TV which has lost the elegance of the No Touch Romance value, but has the characters of Khirad from Humsafar, Dureshehwar from Dureshehwar, the sisterly pair from Mera Naseeb and so on and so forth all have the same thing in common:
1. White dupatta: The symbol of chastity, purity and innocence 2. Keep calm and bear the burden of zulm. The righteous shall win in the last episode. 3. Good women don’t stand up for their rights 4. A good woman also doesn’t have the audacity to answer back. 5. A good woman lets the elders make all the wrong decisions for her. 6. A good woman never wears anything but full-sleeved shalwar kameez. 7. A good woman always interacts with a Fast Girl in jeans which makes you realise that all Fast Girls must wear jeans. Or that any western wear must obviously denote the amount of Evil Fastness. 8. A good woman is always shown in namaz, because Fast Girls have no notion of prayer or God. Since wearing jeans took away the morality and replaced it with a cigarette (because good, devout men can smoke, but women cannot). 9. A good woman waits for the right to be done to her. And always stays quiet.
And then a few days ago I forced my friends to come see the latest Saif Ali Khan movie, Cocktail thinking it seemed rather contemporary; and modern day Indian cinema sometimes does brace reality where the 10 song-n-dance numbers don’t always have outfits changes. So this movie is a classic plot, 2 girls, 1 guy. All living in the same apartment, everyone knows that is a recipe for disaster.
Boy falls for the modern girl, they sleep in the same room. The other girl is a FOB (fresh off the boat) and still adorns to her shalwar kameez and long sleeves. She is demure, she has the flutter of innocence and eyes that look down only. Boy then falls for the White Wearing Goddess, because he realises that because she’s always covered, he’s more intrigued by what’s under it, rather than the stunning Deepika who wears short skirts and dances like there’s no tomorrow, and no party starts till she gets there. Boy’s mother shows up, The desi girl is presented as the girlfriend rather than the actual girlfriend herself because the boy (who openly talks about his sex life with the modern girl) is scared of his mommy’s reaction. Long story short: desi girl wins, modern girl fakes a smile but realises she now wants the home, tries full-sleeved clothing and wants a mother-in-law to love her too.
Perhaps I’m being pedantic. Here’s my point: As a modern woman, who was duly educated by her family beyond their means, and as a woman who was raised to have her own voice, understand her rights in Islam, in marriage, and as a citizen of her country, I am enraged.
How long are we going to stand back and watch modern women shoved around because of the Sita Syndrome we’ve come to accept? Women do not have to be dressed in white and in full sleeves as a proof of chastity. Women do not have to stay in a crappy marriage or accept to be viewed by rishta aunties who come and comment on her appearance, that which must be acceptable to their sons. I say, send me a picture of your son first, and ask him to come meet me and I will see if he’s good enough for me.
If a woman smokes, that is her choice, but by having a cigarette it means she’s looking for an escape or just likes the nicotine high not because she can’t pray, or be a devout Muslim or not have any morals at all. Modern women choose to dress in whatever they feel comfortable. Wearing 9 yards of fabric in 30-40 ?C year round isn’t really convenient and anyone who says so, is utterly lying.
And modern women, for all you boys-hoping-to-be-men-one-day, can just as much take care of home, build a family and give your children and your parents more well-rounded attention because she is more aware of herself and what she can do. So, the next time you let mommy pick a girl, rather than the one you’re dating because after all, if she can date you, or be with you intimately, what does that say of her character? But more importantly, what does that say of your character as a male who will give into his “adolescent desires” and exploit a girl? But alas, she should not give into desires, because she’s a Cyborg, wearing the Sri Devi outfit from Chandni.
Accept it, face it. Clothing, professions, and choosing to smoke or not are not the paragons of virtue. Those, are within you.