Jihad bil Bamboo

I have to confess: I’m a bit of a pansy.

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away (Oberlin College), I used to have sharp teeth and razor claws, was a super feminist and a super Muslim; and so I could rip the guts out of any stupid argument.

Then I grew up. And while for the most part, the growing up involved acquiring wisdom, it also heaped on me tons of caution.

Caution = pansy ass behaviour.

You have probably heard about the goings-on at Lal Masjid and Madrassa Hafsa in Islamabad. If not, in addition to the links, here’s a brief run-down:

Men and women from Jamia Hafsa, the madrassa attached to Lal Masjid in Islamabad, went into the house of a woman now known widely as Aunty Shamim, kidnapped her, her daughter and her daughter-in-law, along with a 6-month-old baby, and dragged them in ropes from their house to the main Lal Masjid premises. Lal Masjid is possibly the most politically active mosque in Islamabad.

They accused the woman, Shamim, of being a madam and running a brothel and demanded that she do tauba, which is repentence, publically for her actions. The women, incidentally, were burqa-clad and carrying bamboos with them. According to the BBC, where I read Shamim’s post-release interview, they gave her three options. Either be handed over the civil courts for prosecution; or submit to a qazi adaalat (a religious court) that the mosque heads would convene to hear the case; or make a public statement renouncing her sinful life, doing tauba and promising to stay on the path of righteousness. Aunty Shamim chose the third option, made a public statement that she renounced prostitution and did tauba. She and her family were subsequently freed.

Now, the imam of the mosque has called for sharia law in the country and threatened suicide attacks. Further, they have established their qazi adalat, saying that sharia is already enforced in their madrassa, and will be extended first to their neighbourhood, then Islamabad, and then other cities in Pakistan until all of Pakistan is run by sharia law.

Let me tell you why this horrifies me:

  1. There’s a religious militia in my home town.
  2. It walked into someone’s house, and I don’t give a crap about that someone’s moral uprightness, and dragged three women and a baby out, tying them with ropes, and took them to a mosque where the mother was beaten until she threatened to convert to Christianity. Apparently the threat worked and she was not beaten anymore.
  3. They exacted a forced confession from her and made her do tauba by force. Tauba by force is a contradiction in terms. It’s not a tauba if someone’s holding a gun, or in this case bamboo stick, to your head.
  4. Because any religious scholar with two brain cells to rub together would know this about tauba, it is clearly and only a power play. It says, “We are stronger than you. We can make you use words we have written for you to condemn yourself. We can use you as an instrument against the government. Our fight is bigger than you. We are bigger than you.” And it worked. The woman is now, apparently, in the protective custody of the police, having been moved out of her neighbourhood.
  5. They call themselves victorious against tremendous odds – kidnapping women is apparently very difficult – and the enemy they have vanquished are the instruments of the nation: the police, the city government, Musharraf’s enlightened moderation – all dubious characters to begin with.

But most of all, I’m horrified into making a decision about something I’ve never really made a decision about before: the burqah.

If you go to BBC South Asia, you’ll see what I’m describing here.

We’re used to thinking of the burqa as a sign of oppression – some poor woman forced by patriarchal society, hiding behind religion, to cover up and go unnoticed, become invisible, become ineffectual. In fact, we think of all forms of hijab this way. It suits the liberal mindset to denounce unequivocally the covering up of women and go from anywhere between squirming to all-out celebration and the uncovering of women. Shuttle cock – bad : cleavage – good.

I never thought so. Not since I grew up and became a full person. I thought that the hijab is something that’s not for me, but (after some initial growing pains when one of my best friends took it on) I thought hijab was an individual choice, a devotional act and therefore good. When it is worn under duress or coercion, hijab – bad. When it is taken on voluntarily, hijab – good.

I never thought it obligatory. I still don’t believe that it is.

However, while I stand by all hijabis who cover their heads and give the finger (or the cold shoulder) to anyone who derides them for it, the niqab, the burqa, the full covering of the face is un-Islamic, immoral and wrong.

It is the height of obscenity, fahashi, to invade a person’s home and kidnap them; to force them to say things that they do not want to say and do things they do not want to do; to use physical force as attack and not defense; and to walk in under cover of female modesty. Ach thoo. Lakh laanat.

No one’s going to touch a burqa-posh woman. That she’s holding a big bamboo in her hand is just an accessory to this supposedly obligatory armour. If someone had laid a hand on those women, and when someone in fact did by arresting two women who are teachers at the madrassa, they will be derided, abused, vilified for laying hands on a “decent God-fearing woman.” But that a swarm of some forty people laid hands on three adult women and a baby is righteousness in the way of Allah. Gharak hovo saray.

I don’t question their status as Muslims or believers because I believe it is a cardinal sin to do that to anyone. Takfir is a crime I don’t want to on my head. But in the spirit of nahi ‘an al-munkar I question their methods, their actions and their intentions.

Why am I blaming this on the burqa? After all, a generation and half ago, at most, women used to wear burqa most of the time in this part of the world, and certainly women in northern India who migrated to Pakistan. It was “just our clothes” as a friend’s mother said. But this burqa is different. This is not about modesty. This is about branding. This is about wearing the label that says Muslim to the Death, which is an obscene and immodest act. This is about wearing your assumed piety on your body as a symbol and then using that symbol as armour and then perpetrating zulm with it. It’s about knowing that no one will touch you because we live in a schizophrenic society that is itself so pansy-ass, it can’t decide what is right and what is wrong, and therefore wilts in the face of symbols: hijab, niqab, beards, public praying, ankle-exposing men; or, to veer away from religion, the quaid, the flag, soni dharti, allama iqbal; or, to veer away from the nation, westernization, modernization, girls in jeans, Zee TV culture, Indian hegemony, Bollywood.

We flatten ourselves in front of symbols and slogans and flags. We make no decisions; we only react. We express opinions that are completely ineffectual, we feel we’ve done our job and we leave.

The thing about the Bamboo Women and their men is this: they don’t. They act. They storm things. They do the wrong thing, but they act in the way they think will be most effectual. And because they read their victims absolutely right.

Stumble it!


#1 a. on 04.11.07 at 4:09 pm

I keep coming back in vain hopes that head will be together enough to write you a meaningful response – for lack of that happening anytime soon, I agree with you in generally all respects, only discounting for the fact of your general experience being different from mine.

More to the point, I don’t know if the burqa is the embodiment of evil – I certainly think it’s been hijacked by the Nasties and I think it was nothing more than a cultural thing to begin with…waisay inn khawataeen kay to burqay bhi nonstandard say lag rahain hain (smth about how the head gear wings out on the sides).

I don’t get why the govt can’t exercise control – I don’t get what it’s afraid of. The purported danger of a backlash is not smth new to them – people in Khi and other places have lived through worse in the heyday of the mqm for instance. Not that that would justify plunging everyone into darkness right now… but some sort of action would be nice. It’s tragic that there is no one to talk some sense into the agitators’ heads. No sensible leadership anywhere. Just lots of frustrations and self righteous screaming and lawlessness (and let’s not forget the silent middle class enjoying random intiqaami feelings of “sticking it to the man” whereever it can, for lack of any other action/thinking it might take to deal with the situation).

#2 a. on 04.11.07 at 4:11 pm

wow. talk about a horrid paragraph up there. You know, I edited, which made the english worse. apologies.

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