Wednesday December 08, 2021

The morality police

October 28, 2021

Harkening back to the 1980s and the dark days of General Ziaul Haq, who single-handedly changed the face of a nation that was progressive and moving towards further enlightenment in many fields, we once again have a national obsession with morality and particularly when it is related to women.

The orders issued by Pemra to television channels to examine television dramas and avoid scenes that show intimacy, caressing or displays of affection even between married couples, leave alone others, totally locks the freedom of expression, even in the field of entertainment. Affection and mutual caring should be a part of any marriage. What do the Pemra authorities expect television channels to replace this with? As activists and others have asked on social media, do they want abusive marriages to be shown? Marriages where couples stay distant to each other and do not converse in any fashion? What is the purpose of this? And surely, we need to encourage unions between people in which love and an ability to care for each other is also involved.

Of course, we do not need graphic scenes and as is the case in many countries, it is possible to fix time slots so that television programming which addresses more controversial issues can be telecast at a time when children are less likely to watch. It is also of course possible to label programmes with rating such as the PG 13 and other category system used for American cable and movies so that parents are aware of the contents of a programme and its suitability for younger people.

But the obsession with modality goes far beyond this. We have had the prime minister comment on the clothes women wear. He of course later denied that this was any attempt to justify rape or violence against women. But the words had already been uttered and eagerly absorbed by a nation where rape culture is sinking in deeper and deeper and boys as young as 13 and 14 year old consider themselves heroes if they commit it. Some of them have actually done so, victimising girls their own age or even younger than themselves. It is these young men who we need to penalise rather than engaging in the victim shaming we see so often or suggesting that the dress women wear leads to them being raped.

There are also other aspects to the morality policing we are seeing. In Zia's time, it was possible to make it more effective since only one channel, PTV, officially controlled by the government was in operation and social media did not exist as it does now. In an age when more and more people across the country, a significant majority according to some surveys, have access to smartphones, it is impossible to control morality in the fashion that has been suggested. Instead, we need to differentiate and make clear what is right and what is wrong. Rape for example is wrong. No matter where it occurs or who the victim may be. This is the message that should go out so that the harassment, molestation and other acts of violence against women that we see on the streets, in public transport and in public places can be brought to a halt.

It is also somewhat astounding that the government should be so obsessed with morality when people are literally starving in their homes because of the price inflation, which stands at about 12 percent for food items. This literally brought starvation to households and surely it is immoral to leave young children to eat almost nothing at all in a nation that is able to produce sufficient food and where the more wealthy sections of society are still able to host massive banquets even if the recent inflation has hit even the upper middle class and the layer above it, in terms of economic ownership. This is where true morality lies. The focus cannot be on women and what they do. It cannot be on attire either, whether this is for men or women. Morality is a very big issue and needs to be seen in this regard rather than with a narrow vision that we are seeing at the present time.

The Single National Curriculum books put out at this stage, for example, seem to show a very large number of women and even small girls in hijab. There is nothing wrong with the hijab. Every woman, every girl as an individual has the right to choose it. But it is also a fact that many in Pakistan choose not to don the scarf and in the textbooks, we wonder, where the factory workers, the women who labour at construction sites, the women who toil at brick kilns and those who work in fields herding cattle and performing other duties are.

The classes that are not able to don the hijab or engage in typical middle class behaviour should also form a part of the Central National Curriculum books considering that they are used at all schools and must show children from low income groups as well as those from other ones, so that there is some sense of inclusion of a nation made up of many different groups, who are divided on the basis of wealth and along many other lines. Showing this only one group in essence, and others only in passing, will simply widen the gaps which already exist.

Lately, there has also been an attempt in the federal capital to suggest a dress code for teachers at government schools and colleges. The code that has been set out by the board responsible for these institutions in many ways makes sense, and introduces greater professionalism to teachers, both male and female. While this activity should essentially be the task of each institution on its own, there is no harm in suggesting that both male and female teachers dress sensibly, professionally, and appear in neat, clean attire for their classes. More questionable is the demand in parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa by some schools that girls must wear the hijab. This is a violation of their basic rights. Indeed, the entire question of morality, and what it means needs to be questioned far more thoroughly, and at a far more depth.

The surface view that putting women in the right clothes will change our culture is damaging and simply further takes away their rights as individuals. We live in a particular culture. In other cultures, people follow other codes. There is no harm in people in our country at least knowing about these cultures and, as is the case in Turkey, choosing more freely what to wear, provided it is not within their workplace or any setting that has particular rules for appearance.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.