Erasing girls

September 21, 2019

Following a few incidents of harassment of schoolgirls, on September 16, District Education Officer , Peshawar issued a circular to heads of middle, high and higher secondary schools to...

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Following a few incidents of harassment of schoolgirls, on September 16, District Education Officer (DEO), Peshawar issued a circular to heads of middle, high and higher secondary schools to “instruct students to use Gown/Abaya or Chadar to veil/conceal/cover up their sleeves ...”

The news was met with widespread criticism. Adviser on Education to the CM KP Zia Ullah Bangash, appeared on Geo News and seemed to defend the decision. This was completely unnecessary given that: a) this is a government famously accustomed to U-turns; and b) the original notification was issued at the district level, by a DEO, which could have been taken back quietly, without expending any political capital. Instead, Mr Bangash epically painted himself into a corner in a manner that ought to be the stuff of PR textbooks. Much of the time, people’s acceptance that women are indeed victims in cases of harassment is only a thin veneer, one that is easily scratched to reveal what’s underneath.

Defenders of decisions such as the one taken by the DEO are quick to point at the relatively lower incidents of harassment and assault in the Middle East and (incorrectly) credit abayas for them. However, many other countries where people have never heard of an abaya also enjoy low rates of harassment and violence against women. The factor that places different countries together in this category is not the use of abayas, or how women dress, but states’ commitment and the consistency with which laws are implemented.

Erasing girls and women them from public view is not only not a solution to any problem, it is an infringement on their civil liberties. There is so much wrong with such an approach towards solving the issue of harassment. For a start, if parents deem their children to be dressed appropriately, it is not for the government to step into citizens’ wardrobe closets and interfere in their sartorial choices for their children.

During the Geo programme, Mr Bangash repeatedly asked the host of the show what else the government could or should do. When the contradictions of his arguments stood exposed, he resorted to his trump card: subtly hinting at accusations of being anti-religion.

That also answers Mr Bangash’s question: the state has to hold to account anyone found guilty of harassment and violence. A bigger question for me is why Mr Bangash’s understanding about the responsibilities of the state are so hazy. He did not have anything to say about what the government will do to stop men from harassing schoolgirls in the first place. For example, are harassment laws enacted in KP, are men being sensitized through campaigns etc?

Although, following public pressure, the notification has now been rescinded, the incident raises questions about how decisions are made, and why the government is consistently unable and unwilling to fulfil basic constitutional responsibilities to citizens, even into its second year. The lack of visible improvement in the delivery of justice by the party of ‘insaaf’ is a massive let-down for voters. Government decisions are first doubled down on, then quickly reversed in U-turns, exposing the ad-hoc nature and absence of any consultation and decision-making process within.

When all arguments fail, bad decisions worthy of ridicule are defended with the shield of cultural values. Culture is not static, but is dynamic and constantly evolves. ‘Culture’ is not a valid defence to continue hanging on to bad practices. Today, with the benefit of centuries of cultural evolution and research progress in all fields, we know more than we ever did. We have developed a better understanding of what works, what doesn’t and what is important for human wellbeing. Setting all that aside in the name of culture and tradition is lazy and betrays a lack of interest in moving towards improvement. We do not want to leave decision-making in the hands of such mediocrity.

Instead of making sexual harassment and assault socially unacceptable behaviour for men, our society puts the onus (and by extension, the blame) on victims. When a girl complains about harassment, the first question she is asked, “what were you wearing at the time?” or “what did you do to encourage him?”

This government, like those that preceded it, only acts when public pressure compels it to. There is no follow-up action, no introspection and analysis of failures. The public’s limited attention span is dominated by its near-constant occupation with political gossip, and who NAB is sending to jail next (matters that have little to no bearing on the lives of most people). This ensures that there is no real cost to the government for repeatedly making bad decisions.

Pakistani society has been on a steady march towards conservatism for the last 50 years. Many of the steps we have taken along the way have proven themselves to be mistakes. But as is often the case, after years it has become politically impossible for any party to unwind those decisions.

Adding a dress code to that long list infringes on citizens’ personal liberties; gradually cloistering half the population from public life cannot be but another mistake we will come to regret.

The writer is an independent education researcher and consultant. She has a PhD in Education from Michigan State University.


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