It was perhaps always predictable whenever a peace dialogue would start between the Government of Pakistan and the banned Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, the debate will be maneuvered towards implementation of sharia law. It is however surprising how the debate has completely been hijacked by the narrow narratives of a woman dress code. In fact the way the debate is now about burka is almost preposterous bordering on the ancient misogynic hysteria which has plagued the progress of our societies since centuries.

It all started with Maulana Abdul Aziz of Lal mosque stressing on a more forceful stance on the implementation of sharia, and the media frenzy which followed last week. Within hours of Maulana’s proclamation, TV anchors and reporters went ballistic on initiating debates what role a woman should be given, as if all the problems in Pakistan were bordering on this one trivial matter.

On one side were the loud voices chanting that the constitution’s sole defense perhaps lied with the proper covering up of a woman and on the other side were the dear liberal voices who went even further hysterical in hogging false alarms of panic.

“They are going to cover you up…”, a popular PPP representative tried to scare me on one of my shows.

“It is all about freedom, with sharia it is the end of woman empowerment”, another agitated voice retorted.

To bring women in the limelight of such debates is not a new practice. Carving out how they should behave has been an ancient tradition sometimes by the monarchs in England, others priests in churches, Imams in mosques and even the liberal mindsets, all believe they perhaps are better advocates of what women want or worse should want.

Scholars such as Khaled Abou El Fadl, an expert on Islamic law and author of “The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists,” says this is an age-old problem. “Historically the West has used the women’s issue as a spear against Islam,” he says. “It was raised in the time of the Crusades, used consistently in colonialism and is being used now. Muslim women have grown very, very sensitive about how they’re depicted on either side.”

If you recollect, a similar debate was initiated by USA and its allies right before they bombed Afghanistan. At that time, USA went to liberate the women, as was said by the then first lady Laura Bush one morning as she spoke to the women of Afghanistan through the radio service.

Every other clip of Afghanistan in the Western media in those days would show veiled women, as if the entire Afghanistan war bordered on the dress code of women. But are veils really that oppressive? Or does the problem actually lie with us, with our veils.

Muslim women have always been made to feel like pawns in a political game: self proclaimed jihadists consider them as ignorant lambs, who need to be protected from outside forces, while the West, the liberators or the liberals consider them helpless victims of a backward society to be saved through military intervention. In all the cases it is the empowerment of woman which is exploited by men on both the sides. The policy of hiding behind the skirts of women is dishonorable, no matter who’s doing it. Ignoring the simple reality that in fact it is the woman who makes the choice of what she wants has become a norm.

If I had never known a Muslim woman, or had not been one myself, I would probably pity any female born into Islam due to the negative propaganda machines active on both sides of east and the west. In the western world we’ve come to see these women as timid creatures, covered from head to toe, who scurry rather than walk. Hence, brave and empowered Mala Yusafzai comes as an utter surprise. In our own homelands, the fear of the west results in an urge to suppress in the wrongly used name of religion. So if Malala is loved by the West, there must be something sinister there.

The good news however remains that despite the apparent display of ultra conservative versions of Islam over the past few decades, these societies are neither reflective of true spirit of Islam nor are they the norm in the Muslim world at large. In Egypt, female police can be seen on the streets. In Jordan and Pakistan, women account for the majority of students in medical schools and teaching. In Syria, courtrooms are filled with female lawyers. In Turkey, women are seen driving busses. In Iran, they are religious scholars.

“Women are out working, in every profession, and even expect equal pay,” says Leila Ahmed, Harvard Divinity School professor and author of “Women and Gender in Islam.” “Though the atmosphere in Muslim countries is becoming more restrictive, no matter how conservative things get they can’t put the genie back in the bottle.”

So the problem is not in the prevalent practice. The problem is certainly not even in the interpretation of the religion. The problem lies elsewhere. Firstly, West’s exposure to Muslim women is largely based on Islam’s most extreme cases of oppression: Taliban-dominated Afghanistan, strictly-ruled Saudi Arabia and post revolutionary Iran. Under those regimes, women were and are ordered to cover. Many Afghan women are forbidden to attend school, and no Saudi woman is allowed to drive. Secondly, the deliberate moulding of patriarchal misogynist designs into a misguided version of self serving religion.

It is indeed due to these intricacies that one question that I have been asked from everyone about Islam is regarding its message about the role of women.

In fact, it is one question I would often ask myself as a little girl. Coming from a family of three girls which was offered condolences at male absence by the typical South Asian inquisitors, but raised by a father who never made us feel unequal in any way, I was always dissected by clashing ideas.

The moment the image of veils comes, suddenly western world puts all questions in one pre-determined bracket. The fact remains that a person who forces a veil on a woman is no less oppressive than the one who orders her to take it off. The balance is achieved only when you give the woman the choice.

The way a blonde is not always stupid; a woman in veil is also not always an oppressed woman. I have met brilliant, smart and empowering women who do live in these veils, and I have also met some stupid ones. The problem is not in the veil, it’s in the prejudice!

Oppression does not come from what you wear; it comes from social attitudes and norms. Isn’t it time we got out of these centuries old, long obsolete attitudes and try to focus our peace talks in a more serious direction.

 The writer is the host of Eight PM with Fe’reeha Idrees on Waqt News.

Email:fereeha@googlemail.com

Tweets at:@Fereeha