Artwork by Fatima Baig
What does being “shareef” and “khandani” have to do with being good? I would say absolutely nothing. Society would say otherwise.
If there are girls who are shareef and khandani then there must be girls who are otherwise. They are the ultimate “awaara” threat to our society. These “awaraa” girls are the ‘otherized’ faction in our society that “good girls” are not supposed to mingle with. Divisions and separations that categorise women and eliminate any chances of sisterhood between females who are different are drilled into our minds from a young age.
Such unruly girls, and later women, are not welcome in groups of friends at school where the parental pressure is for girls to be friends with shareef girls who do not have boyfriends and who wear modest clothes. At that impressionable age, girls are encouraged to be the same; subservient to their parents, and in extension, their society’s wishes and demands. If anyone chooses to differ, they are ostracised and spoken badly about by Lahori aunties who enjoy indulging in character assassination, kitty parties, occasional charity projects; if only being charitable meant sparing young girls from scandalous whispers.
Genuine sisterhood is a far-fetched idea in such a controlled environment where influencers and decision makers including parents and school and university administrations are driven or scared by mentally subduing trends and inclinations. Some do it so that they remain unbothered by what can sometimes be a pestering and interfering community. Others do it because they are guilt tripped into the idea of an unfortunate afterlife – unfortunate being the operative word here.
So, what does it take to be an awaara, not-worthy-of-sisterhood girl in our modern society?
Not very secretly having a boyfriend in an upper class school (your best friend tells her best friend who tells her mother who tells all of Lahore) and forcefully being shifted to an all girls’ institution (in cases where it does not happen, the threat outlives the action) so that an industrial, filthy rich, labour-exploiting family does not become the standing joke for the social butterflies of Lahori high society.
Wearing shalwar kameez when required and sleeveless when allowed; saving that one pair of shorts for trips abroad.
Watching male counterparts drink and smoke with nonchalant ease in public and knowing that the very act of ‘sinning’ itself is male privilege. If a girl from a shareef household does the same out of choice and not peer pressure (if you please), she will be slut shammed. Teachers will talk about her when she is not around. Her self assertive, supposedly saintly and naturally bound-for-heaven friends will remind her that it is immoral. Family friends will say that the sad demise of a good family name is on the way. Relatives will blame it on the mother’s upbringing of the girl child-gone rogue. Parents will blame it on the school. Grandparents will blame it on secularity. The community will blame it on America and the West. In such anarchic times, a person or idea needs to become the mandated, dishonourable scapegoat because a girl child is not expected to make such decisions, free from outside influence in the first place. How free is the act of making a choice anyway?
Being told that actresses live life in a manner that goes against a good girl’s grace because everything in the film industry is for ‘show’. Fashion and makeup only make a come back when rishtas start coming up. In those times, the familial peer pressure can make any girl turn into an actress… Look good. Boast about cooking skills but do not gain weight. Smile but do not laugh too loud. Talk about familial warmth but do not mention ex lovers. Mention skills and achievements but do not make it seem plastic. Humbly gloat about charity endeavours. Mention books and studies abroad but refrain from babbling about travel journeys in the company of male friends or fun trips to the pub. Whatever happens, convey to them that you are nothing but a virgin. Otherwise, they will refuse to take you in and fund your entire existence.
Then there are also relatively liberal households where the status upgrades from living life in a cage to being privileged enough to explore the world out there in a leash… You are more privileged than others. You went to better schools and universities. You can come back home later than most others. You have more exposure. You have been abroad! You can wear skinny denim jeans and sleeveless chiffon sarees. You have educated parents who regularly condemn General Zia and any girl who has a cigarette, alcohol or sex before marriage; the classic juxtaposition. What better in life can you ask for?
My question now is: does it take too little or too much to be an awaara girl in our society?
As long as women from the lower class all the way to the upper class (money buys wealth, not empowerment) cannot become the sole decision makers of what they do with their bodies, they are in shackles – even if they deny it. This is why I like the Aurat March slogan ‘Mera Jism Meri Marzi’. It is not controversial to me. In fact, I really like it.
It is dear to me because very much like me, it tends to miscommunicate to the point that it sometimes apologises what it can stands for.
If the slogan stands for something as basic as reproductive rights and goes against abuse, honour killing and harassment, I am for it. If it stands for something more daring like the right to wear what one likes – even if it goes against sexist rules of false propriety, I am for it. If the slogan stands for something as bold as deciding who one gets to sleep with (and when) – without indulging in socially endorsed alliances – I am positively, utterly and whole heartedly for it.
If a woman wants to sleep with her husband after marriage for the rest of her life, I respect that. If a woman wants to sleep with a boyfriend whom she is not married to, I respect that. If a woman has slept with multiple ex boyfriends over the course of time, I respect that. Who am I to decide what another human being should do with their body or life? These are fundamental human rights that every woman is born with, regardless of what kind of a household she is born into.
The slogan ‘Mera Jism Meri Marzi’, taken in any meaning, context, form and version is pertinent to the way our society functions. It does not matter if society is not ready for such drastic and controversial topics of freedom to talk about. Change does not, rather should not, ask before manifesting itself.
People are generally more than happy to engage in discussions on financial empowerment, education and abuse (even though these topics were taboo a few decades ago) but hesitate at the drop of the ‘S’ word. That is because as a society, we feel comfort in connecting the issue of women empowerment with tragic, oppressed women to look down upon from a vantage point but do not possess the capacity to deal with daring and audacious beings for whom empowerment means sexual freedom as much as it means any other kind of liberation. It is easier to say that these practices happen in Western culture and brush aside introspection than it is to provide a (legally categorised) adult woman with the right to choose what she wants for herself. It is with drowning in fear and paranoia that society does not want to liberate its manipulation and control on women’s bodies from its clasping tentacles. But more than that, it is a battle of ego, false pride and ownership. A woman’s body should not be treated as private property.
As long as we cannot accept and perhaps daringly support the sexual choices of other females around us, we cannot create everlasting sisterly solidarity between women. Naturally, this requires asking women to unlearn what has been taught for decades. It will take much more than what most of us are ready for.
Meanwhile, what is important to understand is that this debate is not about religion, values or culture. It is about choice. Either you are for choice and complete freedom or against it. There is no in between. If this thought makes me radical, then so be it. I never aspired to be shareef or khandani anyway.
The writer is a patriotic and outspoken woman who makes conscious efforts to help her country and fellow women recover from the Zia Era’s despotism, parochialism and mass insularity.