The Great Cover-Up

Mahira Khan wore that dress and people couldn't handle it

The Great Cover-Up
The Twitter mafia was at it again. The recent flare-up of Mahira Khan in a backless dress had the nation in a frenzy. On the same day her pictures came out, a Christian schoolkid, 17-year-old Sharoon, was beaten to death by his Muslim classmates. While this atrocity was barely denounced, Mahira Khan was quickly deemed a blob on the nation’s face for showing a bit of skin. Any reasonable person would question which of the two events was more unislamic, inhumane and liable to bring condemnation to the country. Yet the Twitterati was all aghast about how Ms. Khan, a renowned actor of international repute, an intelligent, mature woman, who has brought much honour and fame to the country, was now making it look bad by smoking with a fellow actor from the enemy country (whose films by the way we love to watch). Schoolchildren beating up their classmate for being a minority member was hardly raising any eyebrows.

Media personalities depicted their bigotry by using their huge Twitter followings irresponsibly, highlighting a woman’s choice of dress instead of the nation’s barbarism towards its minorities. The little white dress caused a furor but the Christian boy’s white coffin caused no controversy. One wondered where the priorities of this nation really lay. The question being raised here is: why do independent women scare us so much? Whether it’s Mahira Khan exercising her right to dress or smoke or interact with who she wants in public or Malala empowering schoolgirls with education and refusing to play victim—why do these Sheroes bring out insecurities in Pakistani media mouths? An oversimplified answer perhaps would be that it alters the status quo.

Writer, actor Osman Khalid Butt tweeted this comeback photo with: "SHOCKING: 'Behaya male actor cigarette-noshi kartay huay pakray gaye - sharmnaak manazir,' said NO ONE EVER". It was liked 6,605 times

They say when a language stops growing (changing), it becomes dead. But when a person starts growing (as in changing) we often become judgmental. The familiar is comfortable, the unknown is scary. Especially when it comes to women, we fear growth and change as with anything else. In patriarchal societies such as ours, be it Zia or Khomeini or the Taliban, the first change such powers introduced was to cover up women. The degrees of intensity vary according to the brand of religiosity being peddled.

The Global North or Western societies, equally guilty, bring about growth-change (read liberation), by unveiling these women. I’m sure many of us can remember First Lady Laura Bush’s first independent radio address after the American 9/11 operation in Afghanistan when she referred to the liberation of Afghan women (unveiling of the blue shuttlecock burqas) as an act of freedom, growth and change, even as they stood amid burning buildings with no roof over their heads. This is not to say that the struggle of women to vote, dress, work as they wish and with basic equality that began as an organized movement since the Suffragettes can be ignored. Women in the West have come a long way as have the ones in our part of the world. If you read Rokeya Hossain’s accounts of how strictly the veil was imposed on women in Muslim households in the early 1900s (and it may still be the case in many areas) one would be forced to acknowledge that women, at least in the majority of cosmopolitan cities have come a long way. Women like Rokeya Hossain, Rashid Jahan and Ra’ana Liaquat Ali and many other unsung heroes like them have through their writings or social work or establishment of educational institutions paved the way for women’s empowerment.
The Global North or Western societies, equally guilty, bring about growth-change (read liberation), by unveiling these women

What remains unaddressed here, however, is a woman’s power to choose for herself. Whether a woman covers herself or bares herself, it should be her decision and respecting that decision is the real empowerment for women. Gender study researchers often reduced to Feminists argue that controlling the way a woman dresses is the most powerful way of instilling and controlling patriarchy in a society. Whether it is the burkini ban in France or the imposed headscarf in Iran, the fact remains that the freedom to dress as a woman chooses to, has been denied to her. When a woman’s dressing is a matter of legal, judicial debate while matters such as rape, domestic violence, women’s health, safe childbirth, consent and the right to abortion remain undebated, surely there is something very wrong there. Or even when they are debated, usually by a group of men as a recent picture coming out of the US shows, the question of the subaltern having no voice for herself flashes high.

I recently went through a personal that experience that made me realize how you dress was not just about wearing or baring but about something much deeper. It was about challenging boundaries that others had set for you. Women who exercise their right to dress as they want show a certain indifference towards how they are perceived. And every time a woman carves out a little more space for herself, the space for other’s shrinks. It is perhaps fearful either way, for the orthodox or for the liberal. Just like people are shocked to see the Humsafar girl in a new avatar, people are equally shocked and judgmental to see Veena Malik in a hijab.

After a recent bereavement, I found comfort in dressing in a more traditional way. But it made people around me very uncomfortable. Having decided to cover my head in the last few weeks, I was appalled when an elderly colleague came up to me and approved of my dress sense. His look when I told him that I was not dressing this way for religious reasons was not of disappointment but of resignation. “It is hard in the beginning for young ladies to accept they have been guided to the right path,” he said. I didn’t know if I was more shocked at being called a young lady or at being guided to the right path as if I were a sheep.

Another colleague felt I was setting a bad example for young girls in the university where I teach, for as being someone who fought against Zia’s islamization, she felt it was giving the wrong message. Good or bad, everyone had an opinion on my altered dress sense. And this is just me! I can well imagine the plight of an international star at being judged for her clothes. However when grave matters such as killings and lynching loom high over our heads, one wonders if women’s clothing and that too on a film set in New York even matter.

To cover or not cover, is not the issue. The problem here is that we need to ‘discover’ where our priorities as a nation really lie. A dress or a murder? What should cause more outrage? The choice you make shows the kind of person ‘you’ really are.

Dr Sabyn Javeri-Jillani is a Liberal Arts professor and the author of Nobody Killed Her (HarperCollins 2017)