Congratulations to all, we have a new government. Our opposition looks like it is ready to keep a close eye on the majority, the new roster of ministers is predictably dull—so long, brief flicker of hope for more women in charge — and things are settling down. One eternal interest that continues to shine bright as ever, though, is our interest in the ladies on the scene. Most particularly the latest Mrs Khan, whose choice of headgear has elicited much attention.
It’s interesting, at the very least, to note that most people are quite ‘live and let live’ when it comes to sartorial choices made for religious purposes, at least here in Pakistan. Most people are quite open to the idea of a woman choosing how to dress if that choice means a hijab, a niqab, a dupatta, an abaya or permuatations of these options. It’s her choice, many will say. Nobody should tell you how to dress. Yes, they shouldn’t. It’s perfectly true. But it somehow only seems to be ‘perfectly true’ when the choices being made fall neatly into line with socially approved modes of female dress. ‘Be yourself’ is a mantra that is never applied to girls wearing jeans. ‘Everyone should be at liberty to decide how they dress’ is a philosophy that is never applied when it comes to a woman in a little dress or sleeveless anything. Model Saheefa Jabbar faced incredible backlash for the mere act of cutting her hair short! One can’t begin to imagine the incredible hair-trigger of the entitled ego sometimes, the cheek of strangers who believe their opinions about the length of a woman’s hair is actually relevant to anyone’s life except their poor relatives.
It’s not surprising, ultimately. Women’s emancipation is only acceptable as long as it doesn’t actually infringe upon the liberties of men, real or perceived. Ironically, liberated women are of benefit to men too, as anyone who has strong and competent women in their life can attest. It’s also laughably simple to subvert this particular system. Scores of women wear abayas and hijabs during their work transit, for example, not because they have religious convictions about covering up but because it seems the safest option to keep harassment at bay. Women in some states and some families are coerced into wearing a scarf. Does that help men sleep better that night, knowing their women are wrapped up like tiresome toffees? Does the visibility of a woman’s ankle, shoulder or neck really determine the tone of a society?
Surely if it were that easy, countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran—where women are required by law to cover—would be models for us all, societies where would be no rape, forced marriage, harassment or abuse because men wouldn’t be constantly tempted by any woman, at all. Women who aren’t allowed to drive, work, travel alone or even have the sun on their face are essentially invisible, and to the patriarchy that seems to be the best kind. And yet, Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is abysmal. Misogyny is astonishingly rampant. It’s obviously not the women.
It’s important to also remember that when we think of “western women”, our first point of reference is television shows, Instagram and movies—which are each as unreal a representation of life as the next. The average “western woman” is not walking about in tiny shorts and a bikini top. Most of the time they are just as sensibly dressed as the next person, because like everyone else in the world, western women too go to work, pick up their kids from school, entertain their friends and buy groceries. Just because they’re not doing it in a shalwar doesn’t mean they are scantily clad, blonde bombshells prancing around in high heels 24/7. And even ‘there’, in American schools for example, there are ridiculous dress codes that only exist to police young women and their bodies—no sleeveless, for example, but only for girls. Do you see a pattern emerging? All over the world women, their bodies, and how they choose to clothe them are under constant scrutiny. When they cover up a lot, they are oppressed. When they don’t, they’re fast. For us, anyone who doesn’t look like everyone else is an eccentric anomaly, viewed with suspicion. Anyone who doesn’t fall into line in the required, acceptable way—women, men, trans men and women, men who like to dress differently, women who wear men’s clothes for fun, women with short hair, men with coloured hair—the list is endless. For most of us, repressed and controlled as we are, our bodies are our first and last port of resistance. For many of us, each thing we choose to wear is a statement, an act of defiance, a small burst of self expression that has nothing to do with who your father is or what time your curfew is. Maybe that’s why real freedom to wear what you want is seen as such a dangerous thing. Maybe that’s why we panic when girls cut their hair off, put on trousers, roll up their sleeves— when they stop trying to fit in and just be themselves. There’s nothing more dangerous than a woman who has stopped trying to please everyone else, and whether that’s a niqab or a tank top, more power to you.
The writer is a feminist based in Lahore.