Of Ichra, Halwa And Curriculum Reform In Punjab

As Chief Minister, Maryam Nawaz will need to be as brave in her educational reforms as ASP Shehrbano was when she saved a woman’s life

Of Ichra, Halwa And Curriculum Reform In Punjab

Irony died in Lahore last month. A group of clerics accused a woman of insulting Islam because of what she was wearing. Such protectors of faith are given to using their entire beings as a display mechanism for their religiosity; they wear their religion on their sleeves, so to speak. And here was their chance to reaffirm it to their mediocre minds and strike fear in the hearts of all those who would stand and watch. Here was their opportunity to teach the woman a lesson and win another battle for Islam.

The woman and her husband were shopping in Ichra Bazaar. She wore a shirt that had Arabic script on it. She had no clue that her shirt would become the cause of an incident which would make the headlines and could have ended in her being lynched by a mob. Lacking curiosity, the men did not bother trying to learn what exactly was written on the shirt, its meaning. Meaning, intent and context aren’t important for such men. With a trigger-happy penchant for accusing others, they accused the woman of wearing a shirt with Koranic verses printed on it, and so insulting religion. The shirt was from a popular Middle Eastern brand, worn all over the Persian Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, and apparently in Pakistan too. 

A shopkeeper gave the woman refuge in his shop, and as the mullahs worked up the sentiment around them, an anonymous call went to 15. A crowd had already gathered outside the shop, becoming feverish. No one dared raise a voice in support of the woman. They too could be accused of the same sin. Before the temperature rose further, and before the woman could be dragged to the street and lynched, police arrived-- lead by a woman cop. A cellphone video showed Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) Shehrbano yelling, trying to convince the crowd that no blasphemous act had been committed. She took charge of the situation, took a gun away from one of the clerics, and convinced them and the woman to go to the police station. ASP covered the woman’s face with a cloth for her safety as she accompanied her to the car.

“The distance to the car was short physically but was very long mentally,” ASP Shehrbano said in an interview to BBC Urdu. In another video the woman sat in a police station and apologised for wearing the shirt, as ASP Shehrbano stood watch. 

A couple of days later TV news carried pictures of the Army Chief meeting with the brave policewoman, admiring her actions. An emissary from the Saudi embassy also met with her, and extended an invitation to Saudi Arabia to meet with the crown prince. The newly minted Chief Minister too met with the ASP and praised her for her courage and bold actions. All wonderful symbolic measures that would doubtless have sent a strong signal to the extremists. Subsequently, FIRs were registered against the harassers.

Another woman made news the same day as the Ichra Bazaar incident. Maryam Nawaz took oath as the Chief Minister of Punjab, becoming the first female CM of a province in Pakistan. She made an impressive speech in the ceremony laying out an ambitious agenda, which included curriculum development among other things.

But she said nothing about the rampant extremism in the country. The two are linked. For decades, Pakistani textbooks have been indoctrinating children so they carry a narrow view of life, numbing minds so they can’t think critically and question assumptions. First thoughts are often their last, opinions are firm and doubt and uncertainty are missing from their mental landscape. Generations so brought up have created a milieu that gives a thriving space to men like the ones in Ichra bazaar.

Imagine a different reality: what if the same men had seen the woman wearing the shirt and had decided to ignore it, thinking that even if the woman was in the wrong the matter was best left to God? The Almighty could punish her on the Day of Judgement if He chose so - after all, that is what the Day of Judgement is for. Imagine if they had thought that taking any action here in this world would be interfering in God’s work. They could also have activated their faculties of curiosity and intellect and tried to learn what exactly was written on the shirt, its meaning. One of the words written on the shirt was ‘halwa,’ which means beautiful in Arabic. In Urdu it is also the name of a delicious dessert.

Such a reality would have been centred around tolerance, curiosity and rationality, not self-righteousness. Perhaps CM Maryam Nawaz would consider that as she contemplates curriculum reform. And hopefully she will be as brave in her reforms as ASP Shehrbano was when she saved a woman’s life at Ichra Bazaar.