It clearly does not take much to reveal the true colours of the self-appointed guardians of morality in the Land of the Pure. On the first Friday of Ramazan, fellow Nation columnist Marvi Sirmed was subjected to a barrage of abuse by JUI-F senator Hafiz Hamdullah on a political talk show broadcast on NewsOne. The panelists on the show had been discussing the tragic incident in Lahore early last week when a young woman was set ablaze by her family for marrying someone of her own free will. When the moderator asked Marvi Sirmed to comment on the suggestion that the Council of Islamic Ideology’s support for the idea of beating women to discipline them might have helped foster an environment in which such heinous killings could take place, Hafiz Hamdullah erupted, refusing to let the discussion continue as he used increasingly loud and coarse language to derail the discussion. When Marvi Sirmed refused to be silenced by these tactics, Hafiz Hamdullah resorted to threatening her and her mother with rape before finally attempting to physically attack her. Ultimately, Hamdullah had to be escorted out of the studio by the television channel’s security.
Hafiz Hamdullah, a Senator and Chairman of the Senate’s Standing Committee on Religious Affairs, a former provincial Health Minister, and a supposed scholar of Islam who has memorised the Quran, chose to respond to a difference of opinion by hurling rape threats and attempting to engage in physical violence. He did so in Ramazan, a time that is supposed to be marked by restraint, and during a show specifically put together to highlight questions related to the abuse of women. It would be tempting to point out the deeply hypocritical nature of Hamdullah’s conduct except that it is not hypocritical. Indeed, there is every reason to believe that the misogyny expressed and enacted by Hafiz Hamdullah is part and parcel of his dangerously parochial worldview.
The religious right has long castigated its secular opponents for being godless, immoral reprobates obsessed with objectifying and commodifying women. Yet, time and again, it is people like Hafiz Hamdullah who demonstrate what can only be called an unhealthy fascination with sex and women. Over the past three years, for example, the Council of Islamic Ideology has done little more than provide ‘rulings’ on marriage, justifying child brides, polygamy, and physical violence against women for refusing to entertain the carnal desires of their husbands. Through its repeated endorsements of the worst kinds of misogyny, he Council of Islamic Ideology has simply reinforced the notion that women are little more than objects existing only to be disciplined by men and to produce children. Any and all other roles, actions, and interactions are superfluous, unnecessary and, indeed, wrong.
In this context, Hafiz Hamdullah’s disgusting rape threats are utterly unsurprising. Confronted not only by an opinion that he disagreed with, but by a woman who dared to make her voice heard, Hamdullah’s recourse to vile language and physical force was nothing more than the response of a man unable to countenance the possibility that a woman might be able to do more than exist as an inert object incapable of expressing any agency. That he would see sexual assault as being a legitimate means through which to establish his dominance and power over a woman speaks volumes.
Sexism and misogyny are not, of course, the sole preserve of the religious right in Pakistan. The indefensible remarks made by Khawaja Asif with regards to Shireen Mazari in the National Assembly are proof of this, as is the hypocrisy of people like Shaikh Rasheed, who attacked Khawaja Asif while conveniently forgetting that he himself had made sexist comments about Benazir Bhutto on numerous occasions. Similarly, if reactions on social media are anything to go by, a fair number of self-proclaimed ‘nationalists’ and ‘patriots’ essentially supported what Hafiz Hamdullah had said, claiming that Marvi Sirmed’s ‘liberal’ credentials justified any threats and violence directed towards her. Once again, the old canard about ‘liberal fascists’ and ‘religious extremists’ being two sides of the same coin was trotted out without considering how the former, if they exist at all, are not the ones making rape threats and promising to visit deadly violence upon their opponents.
However, while sexism must be opposed in all its forms and manifestations, the variant employed by the Religious Right must be subjected to particular scrutiny because of they way in which its leaders and members often cast themselves as being the sole, legitimate arbiters of acceptable moral and ethical conduct in Pakistan. Consider, for example, the frothy denunciations of the Women’s Protection Bill voiced by the leaders of the JUI-F, the Council of Islamic Ideology, and other religious parties and organizations. For weeks, they could do little more than talk about how the proposed law was un-Islamic, how it would tear the fabric of society apart, how it would lead to all kinds of social evils, and so on and so forth. Yet, when women are burned alive for marrying of their own free will, when they are deprived of an education or healthcare, when the physical and mental abuse of women is rampant in households across the Land of the Pure, these alleged paragons of virtue are silent.
Their silence is not difficult to explain. They simply do not care, putting the protection of the patriarchal order before any concerns about the welfare of their fellow human beings. What makes all of this worse is the way in which their oppressive, discriminatory agenda is justified in the name of Islam, implying that such blatantly unacceptable conduct can be condoned by a complex and diverse belief system that, at its core, espouses principles of equality and justice that fly in the face of the regressive views of these so-called ‘scholars’.
Hafiz Hamdullah, a man who continues to feed at the teat of the public exchequer, who receives hundreds of thousands of rupees in income and perks as a senator, who refused to file any tax returns until 2013 and continues to pay a minimal amount every year, must be held accountable for what he has said and done. His continued presence in the Senate is an insult to that body, and his masquerading as some kind of religious authority is an insult to Pakistan’s collective intelligence.