The writer is an international social enterprise lawyer and the Co Founder of the SEW-EGAP Women Empowerment Program.
In our fast changing times, it would not be out of place to ask whether the ‘hijab’ is a symbol of medieval suppression or the modern symbol of international defiance. Simply put, the hijab is a dress code and a way of life adopted by practicing Muslims. Whether a woman decides to be Muslim or not and how much Muslim, is entirely her wish and one for which according to the Muslim faith, she alone will be held accountable. Then how can any man, Muslim or otherwise interfere with her life choices? Yet this one piece of clothing has borne the brunt of many a chastisement, punishment and retribution in the colourful history of Muslim women in the world.
Recently, another such incident brought the hijab under spot light when the Punjab Higher Education Minister made the generous announcement of a new policy for the awarding of ‘five grace marks’ for women who wore hijab in university. Though the twitter page of the Government of Punjab moved swiftly to rebut the claim made by the Punjab Higher Education Minister Syed Raza Ali Gillani, sadly, it all happened just a few days after the whole nation jubilantly and enthusiastically celebrated the International Women’s Day and women’s empowerment.
After the government’s clarification, the debate is no longer necessary as to what would be the corresponding incentive for boys or for girls of other faiths who do not wear hijabs. However, if this was done to test waters on social media, then that rings an alarm bell: The idea was being at least considered and worse, it was directly connected to religion.
When the 15th Constitutional amendment was proposed on August 28, 1998, which was later passed on October 9, 1998 by a two-third majority, similar alarm bells rang for a lot of individuals.
What the 15th Amendment popularly known as the ‘Sharia Bill’ proposed was that with the addition of Article 2B in the Constitution , the Federal Government would be under an ‘obligation’ to take steps to enforce the Shariah and among other thing to promote ‘amr bil ma’roof’ and ‘nahi anil munkar’.
Because it all revolved around lofty principles of policy with the added weight that it was all being done to uphold the true injunctions of Islam, few had the courage to publicly refute it. It was not that the ‘name sake’ and practicing Muslims had any objections to the injunctions of their Islamic faith itself. The biggest fear was not even that it would force all women to wear hijabs (though many women opposed such a possible outcome and voiced their horror and dismay) but what really alarmed all was that through article 2B a new weapon would be created that would give the state, the unfettered power to interfere in the personal lives of ordinary citizens with the possibility of grave miscarriages of justice. The miscarriages of justice from the enforcement of the Hudood Laws from Zia’s era were a strong testament to these well founded fears.
However, history proves two points: That despite all the political coalitions and seats in Parliament, the 15th Amendment did not pull through and secondly, that it showed that those in power were capable of engineering and conceptualizing such a policy.
With the backdrop of such a history, it would require the younger policy formulation experts, a great amount of drive, conviction and mass education, to move the government towards innovation in governance and technology based development, when the same strides have to be made on the shoulders of the same men who still want to subjugate and ‘reward’ women for conforming to their own sense of morality, with 5 ‘grace’ marks.
The Punjab Government’s twitter refutation of the Minister’s claim is a glimmer of hope. There are still some people thinking in the government. But it is then equally important that as far as policy is concerned, there should be no one whimsical declaration of policy, rather a unified stance of the government must be resonated after due consultations with all relevant stakeholders. With the challenges of the present day, greater coherence in the government is the need of the hour. What needs to be understood now is that in the age of technology, we need to move forward in trade and development, rather than contain information. It should be the responsibility of elected Ministers to weigh their words carefully before they announce them to the media, rather than social media verify every news item related to the government through the Punjab Government twitter page.
Though internationally in France, the hijab is gaining more negative ground in policy formulation, there is no rule or study to show us that all those women who cover their heads are more religious or that those who don’t are not in fact more conscientious.
In any case, girls should rise above the 5 ‘charity’ marks. The Higher Education Ministry must uphold the value of academic excellence and girls should be taught the virtues of hard work and persistence, rather than show them the easy way out, with any kind of grace marks.
After all, they have to not only survive in this world but lead as well.