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Fear of women’s emancipation

By Raza Habib Raja

May 19 2017


Recently, the Jamat-e-Islami (JI) chief, Sirajul Haq, made a controversial speech that sparked a debate. In the speech, Haq tried to compare western culture to Pakistani culture and trivialised it by claiming that it advantaged individuality over everything else.

In order to make his point, Haq gave several examples. He stated that in the West, children don’t live with their parents or take care of them when they grow old. However, the statement which really made the headlines was the anecdotal “evidence” he gave that in the West, men don’t even buy their girlfriends ice cream and couples pay for things separately.

It was ironic that the JI chief tried to explain western “selfishness” in the context of a romantic relationship. After all, according to JI’s ideology, romance is the most disgusting relationship possible and has to be prevented at all costs in society. Upon hearing the word “girlfriend” from Haq, my mind flashed back to my time at the Hailey College of Commerce, Punjab University  which used to be a stronghold of the Islami Jamiat Taleba (IJT) Pakistan, the student wing of JI.

IJT was a fascist force in the university and used to indulge in moral policing. Mixed gatherings were completely forbidden and IJT would stop men and women from even talking to each other. In their perverted heads, even casual conversations between male and female students were a prelude to sexual relationships. There were incidents when people were tortured for simply talking to the members of the opposite sex.

The moral policing was enforced with such rigour that conversations between the sexes were extremely rare. This forced separation was actually counterproductive because instead of normalising gender relations, it reduced everything to sex and romance. This created the conception that men would only see women under the precincts of a sexual object. Even if a girl was seen talking to a guy, it always appeared like she was having an illicit affair with him and therefore, she was deemed a “loose” girl.

All that moral policing and fascist behaviour was often justified by IJT through propaganda about the evils of the western civilisation. I remember a speech from their leader who justified the prohibition of mixed gatherings by giving reference to the rise in premarital pregnancies in the West. The central theme of his speech was that a conversation between the two sexes had to be disallowed in universities because it would lead to sexual perversion. According to that logic, when men and women talked, they would eventually become involved in a romantic relationship and start indulging in obscene behaviour leading to the destruction of our “pious” culture.

What the JI chief said in this recent speech was making the same point, though the way it was elaborated was different. Thus, the West was evil and our culture was good.

It is okay to like one’s culture but what really worries me is that we are just disregarding western values completely based on assumptions and we do not have enough knowledge to even make said assumptions in the first place.

For example, it is true that in the West men are not always expected to pay but at the same time, when they pay for ice cream, they do not pay out of some social compulsion but because they really want to pay. More importantly, women in the West may not get spousal or male support the way they get here, but the upside is that they enjoy more freedom and rights.

Yes, sometimes women may buy themselves ice cream but their relationship with men is not based on dependency but on love and respect. They stay with their men not because their survival hinges upon that relationship but because they love them. We often assume in our culture that love is synonymous with dependency and forget that the genuineness of a relationship is measured when two people in a relationship are equally independent. I am not suggesting that women here do not love their spouses but it is difficult to disentangle love from dependency.

I think that the reason western culture is often misrepresented by religious parties like JI is that they fear the emancipation of women. By framing those western values which give women better deals in highly negative terms, their goal is to justify and rationalise the existing patriarchal and misogynist constructs and ensure that our society does not evolve.

When Haq expressed shock over women buying ice cream out of their own money, he was in reality frowning at the very notion of female independence. By preventing men and women from even talking to each other at universities, student organisations like IJT are merely rationalising further restrictions on women. This also precludes men from looking at women as equal humans and further pushes the notion that women and men cannot just be friends. This only restricts women further in a society that already has no equality and neither believes in it.

Originally published by Tribune Pakistan

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