A couple of years ago, some friends on their trip back from the mazars of Sufi saints in Sindh brought back ajraks (Sindhi chadars) as gifts. I received four of them and they have been lying around in a special place in my cupboard since then. They are pretty but heavy as dupattas so I could never figure out what to do with them. I had even asked some friends for suggestions but found their answers quite vague – until the Nusrat Sehar Abbasi incident in the Sindh Assembly left me totally reeling.
Not in my wildest dreams could I have come up with that. Now I regret all the times I could have used the chadar as a substitute for respect. But then again in such a chauvinistic environment, I am not sure it would have worked with the role reversal.
While the incident did clarify for me the actual purpose and significance of a chadar or ajrak, the picture it paints is very disturbing. With all aspects of this episode clamouring for attention, the easiest way to separate them into neat little boxes is to start from the beginning.
Sindh Assembly: The world saw it for what it is: a fish market. In our male-dominated society even the MPs consider it against their ‘honour’ to answer questions raised by their female peers. PPP MPA Imdad Pitafi probably felt the same or that he could not stand up to scrutiny so he lashed out in the only way he knows how to: by insolent sexual innuendoes. Wow… three words that should not be used in the same sentence with ‘parliament’, but when they are, you can be sure of the rot within.
It wasn’t just Pitafi’s misogynistic remarks; the reaction it prompted from his male party peers and seasoned politicians was no less shocking: laughter from honourables like Chief Minister of Sindh Murad Ali Shah and Nisar Khuhro and taunts from the UK-educated PPP lawmaker Nawab Muhammad Taimur Talpur. My question is: where was the female speaker when all this was happening? Yes, she was right there witnessing the demise of parliamentary language and decorum.
The protest: Nusrat Sehar Abbasi made all the right kind of noise while protesting. She had, after all, her honour to protect. While we would have been satisfied with just his ministerial dethroning and a couple of CCTV cameras in his ‘chamber’, she went on to threaten self-immolation if Pitafi was not sacked. A sitting MPA had to threaten to burn herself within the walls of the provincial legislative assembly for redress of sexual harassment. So what do the poor women in Pitafi’s constituency have to do to get heard? Do they actually have to pour fuel and light the match? Leaving the nitty gritty aside, we were nevertheless ready to fight for Abbasi.
The anticlimax: She forgave him, right in our faces. And for what – a chadar? Agreed, a chadar carries great cultural significance in Sindh, but using a symbol of respect to undo disrespect? It will take time for me to wrap my head around that logic. Until that happens I will continue to drape myself in the chadar of feminism rather than humanism.
Nusrat Sehar Abbasi says she forgave Pitafi because he came, draped a chadar over her and gave her the respect of a ‘sister’ – the same ‘sister’ he had earlier invited to his chamber for a ‘satisfactory reply’. Is it only me who finds this explanation eerily disturbing?
The grounding: No, Pitafi did not get grounded. It was Abbasi. At a presser held after, she ‘forgave’ the aggressor. Abbasi clarified that the only reason she had accepted the chadar was because of its significance in Sindhi culture. She, however, also indicated that the “repercussions of rejecting” the chadar was another reason behind her forgiveness.
The party: The party that calls itself liberal and progressive decided that when push comes to shove, the liberal and progressive urban voters of Sindh don’t really matter. So instead of making an example of Pitafi in this pre-election year, the PPP decided to turn Pitafi and Abbasi into siblings. Because in our warped system only sisters, mothers and daughters deserve respect, the rest are merely women.
The PPP probably feels that this sense of siblinghood would resonate more with their vote bank. But what of the PML-F, you may ask. Apparently nothing, as it wasn’t their chadar to lose.
The law: The women’s harassment bill so loudly tabled and approved by this very Sindh Assembly came very close to haunting it. So why make a law that can come back to bite you? Because they were smart about it. There’s no suo motu option; if the complainant decides to forgive, all is forgotten.
Maybe there’s an answer somewhere in there about my question regarding the “repercussions of rejecting” the chadar.
The writer is an executive producer, Geo News and editor of Jang – The Economist annual edition.