Veil ban in a liberal society

•April 28, 2011 • Leave a Comment

By Niaz Murtaza

A woman in a sexy burqa

It is a woman’s choice to live her life the way she wants and to feel the way she wants

FRANCE has recently banned the burka and other face covers in public ostensibly on security grounds. However, the accompanying statements made by senior officials have created the strong impression that the law mainly targets the burka.

The ban has divided even liberal opinion vertically. Some support the ban, arguing that the burka is a symbol of oppression. Others argue that since many women in France wear it voluntarily, the ban violates their personal freedom. Which viewpoint is closer to the truth?

Liberal democratic states maximise personal freedom, restricting it only where it harms oneself or others. However, people are given greater licence to harm themselves than others. All actions that cause clear physical, economic and psychological harm to others or restrict their personal freedom, whether immediately or later, are banned.

On the other hand, liberal states only restrict actions which cause clear and relatively immediate physical self-harm. So, suicide and the use of hard drugs are banned. However, they rely on awareness-raising and not bans for dealing with practices that cause lower levels of self-harm. Thus, smoking, which causes clear but non-immediate physical self-harm, is not banned except in public where it harms others. Let us view the burka issue within this framework.

According to this framework, states clearly have the right to ban the practice of forcing women to wear burkas as it violates their personal freedom. However, if women wear burkas voluntarily, the state has a weaker case for a ban since there is no clear and immediate physical self-harm.

If a state fears that the voluntary adornment of the burka causes psychological and economic harm to women, the appropriate response to this lower level of self-harm should be awareness-raising rather than the imposition of a ban, as in the case of smoking. States must adopt interventions proportionate to the level of self-harm. Thus, the burka ban is not in line with the norms of proportionate response in liberal democratic countries.

Some argue that burka adornment even by adult women cannot be truly voluntary being based on years of childhood indoctrination. This may often be true. But liberal states do not normally override the decisions of adults based on this argument. For example, the adoption of the gypsy way of life in Europe is the result mainly of childhood indoctrination for there are few cases of people adopting it later in life. But this lifestyle has been not banned even though some people argue that it reduces the economic and political welfare of gypsies.

The case for childhood indoctrination would be much stronger in totalitarian societies that ban alternative sources of information. In France, where the dominant discourse is anti-burka, this argument seems weak. Taking action based on it means that the state arrogates itself the right to decide what is good or bad for people even when there is no clear physical self-harm.

The ban is also justified based on the invocation of the principle of harm to others. It is argued that a person wearing a face cover is difficult to identify and can more easily commit a crime.

However, a law adopted on this ground must satisfy two criteria. First, it must be non-discriminatory. The French law meets this criterion for it covers all forms of face covers. Second, the law should be based on empirical evidence. The French law is on weak grounds here for there does not seem to be any systematic analysis by criminologists that proves that the use of face covers increases crime.

The French government would have done much better both in terms of fairness and good public relations had it adopted the law by first convincingly demonstrating the increased crime risk caused by face covers. Moreover, it should also undertake similar analyses for guns and gloves for they can also facilitate crime.

Some support this law by arguing that it helps reduce public manifestations of religion in a secular society. However, if this is the intent, then again the state must be non-discriminatory and should ban all religious dresses in public. It must also tear down all easily recognisable religious places and replace them with nondescript, boxy places if worship. Clearly, this would be taking secularism to ridiculous heights.

Secularism means that the state should not get involved in religion, not that religion should be banned completely from the public sphere. Such an approach seems fit for totalitarian Soviet-style societies rather than liberal democracies.

Others support the ban because of the partial similarity of wearing the burka voluntarily with it being forced on women. However, this is like arguing that volunteerism should be banned because of its partial similarity with slavery. Others argue that the burka does not fit in with French culture. But this makes the ban similar to the practice of more autocratic states, e.g., Turkish restrictions on Kurdish culture.

Thus, this framework highlights the overkill involved in the French burka ban. However, the utility of this framework extends beyond that, for we can strengthen our arguments against the French ban if we can first be sure that the Pakistani state properly protects the rights of women and minorities.

Unfortunately, this framework reveals that Pakistan is a much bigger transgressor than France. It provides little protection to women who are often forced to wear burkas, marry, procreate, vote and remain at home against their will. Pakistani laws discriminate against minorities, for example by banning them from occupying the highest offices of the land. Pakistan also bans many activities that cause neither harm to others nor clear and immediate physical self-harm.

While we are right in criticising the French law, for the sake of consistency we must also criticise all those Pakistani laws that are discriminatory and capricious and place unnecessary restrictions on personal freedom. Let us not just ask for justice for ourselves but for everybody, for in doing so we make justice more assured for ourselves.

The writer is a research associate on political economy issues at the University of California, Berkeley.



Gender apartheid in the Muslim world

•April 28, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Despite clear warnings from the Holy Prophet (pbuh), it is a common sight that women are excluded from the masajid.

By Aaishah AbuBakr

Before we had started praying, a man came running towards us from the front rows and forced us to stop. I was out of sorts and felt really embarrassed in front of about fifty men, when they turned around with eyes gazing at us fixedly, as if we had committed an act of blasphemy.

“But you are not allowed here.”

He took us to a dark, dingy warehouse on the far right. “Pray here,” he said. I looked around. It was a deserted room with unwashed utensils and dirty clothes scattered everywhere.

Not allowed? I kept thinking to myself. Why on earth am I not allowed to come to the house of my Lord? I was enraged but my friend put a hand on my shoulder as if to tell me:

“It’s okay. Live with it. You can’t change the system.”

Continue reading ‘Gender apartheid in the Muslim world’

Pakistan’s very own apartheid

•April 7, 2011 • Leave a Comment

By Neha Ansari

I perceive myself to be liberal because I believe that I am a pluralist.

I am not an extremist in my political or religious views. I am proud that I am different — separate — and quite clearly a minority in my country. However, despite my so-called pluralism, I do not want to associate with those I call the ‘jaahils’ and the ‘fundos’ and in that sense I end up being disconnected from the mainstream.

Some readers may not like this but I will give the example of theburqa-clad mother of four who believes that she is pious and righteous, and that others who are not like her are not. She also believes, like most mothers, that she is doing the best she can for her children. She thinks she is different from the rest of the people who are not like her. She does not want her daughter to be like other young girls who she thinks are rowdy and strut about at shopping malls.

This separation, this unbelonging if you will, believing that you are different from the masses is at the root of our society’s problem. And it is called ‘firaaq’ – an Arabic word meaning separation or disunion. We disassociate ourselves from those we deem different (farq) and dwell in self-love and self-righteousness. Whether it be the ‘pious’ mother or the ‘liberal’ journalist, both are guilty of abomination and arrogance.

We limit ourselves to clothes, appearances and other surface details. But we do something more – we wallow in self-pity. We feel like we are alone in the battle of the mind and spirit. The pseudo liberals eschew the ones who do not act, think or dress like them. And the same goes for the ‘religious’ ones. This ‘firaaq’ is present also in the rich and the poor. Both feel the same contempt, self-pity and a grieved sense of distinction from each other.

And it doesn’t stop here. This phenomenon appears in our society in the form of schisms – and the nascent form is ‘rafz’ (or formal disunion) which then transforms into ‘fitna’ (or chaos). This is our very own apartheid and segregation.


Express Tribune


How many more Bhattis?

•April 3, 2011 • Leave a Comment

By Usman Ahmed

Blasphemy is a difficult subject to broach these days. It is a notion no one dare challenge or discuss out of fear of inciters of sectarian violence. Dissenting voices have been subdued, and yet others have chosen the supine comforts of wilful ignorance, in case they are next on the assassins’ list.

One month on from the murder of Shahbaz Bhatti, who was gunned to death under the darkest clouds in Islamabad, like ostriches, our heads are still firmly rooted in the sand. Mr Bhatti was not butchered for defaming the Holy Prophet (pbuh) or suggesting that the Holy Quran was a man-made scripture. Instead, his only apparent crime was to be an outspoken critic of the misuse of these pernicious laws. Tragically, he paid for this gross affront with his life.

While the country has reconciled itself to another religiously motivated murder, the question that confronts us all is, will anyone now have the courage to stand against the untrammelled hatred that threatens to destroy the nation?

Fundamentalists, terrorists, the Taliban, al Qaeda, call them what you will, are not the only standard-bearers of Islam. The truth is that our own reticence and neglect has only served the interests of the religious right and allowed them to infiltrate the moderate mainstream. We are left with a rather depressing state of affairs in which acts of murder and violence have become a part of daily life.

Enough is enough. The time has come to recoil from the mullah’s convoluted brand of religion. Pakistanis and Muslims of all stripes need to categorically reject the militant ideology of the fundamentalists and project a humane and tolerant version of Islam that is worthy of the name. Rather than allowing the mullahs to force their extremist ideology on us, why do we not impose our beliefs on them? The more we withdraw into our shells, the more damage we inflict upon ourselves and our society. No longer can hardliners be allowed to maintain the pretence that intolerance and barbarity are synonymous with Islam.

The perpetrators of crimes as heinous as the murder of Bhatti and Salmaan Taseer, need to be vociferously condemned and a strong message must be sent to religious hardliners that the majority of Pakistanis want to live in a free and open society. The government, too, needs to stop abdicating control to the rule of the mob. If they don’t, then the dispensers of vigilante justice will continue to thrive in the atmosphere of impunity created by the failure of the state to act against those who perpetrate violence in the name of religion. Let us become a nation united by our plurality, shared values and common goals.


Express Tribune

Wake-up call for Pakistan

•March 4, 2011 • Leave a Comment

By Aruna Hussain

Once again conspiracy theories abound. Who killed Shahbaz Bhatti? Of course, there must have been that ever present ‘external hand’ with sinister designs, American interest groups or the CIA.

No matter what the theory – there is no excuse.

If the conspiracy theories circulating in the media are true (and the CIA is in cahoots with the Taliban without the knowledge or approval of the ISI) then the government and state should be ashamed of their intelligence ignorance and take decisive action to stop this fundamental attack on Pakistan’s sovereignty.

If these stories are bollocks and there is no CIA or outside connection (and the murders and ongoing situation have been created from within) then too the government and the state should be ashamed that they have been unable to detect or reign in these extremist vermin operating right under their noses.

Either way, it is beyond high time the government and the intelligence/army got together to put a firm end to this nonsensical drama going on around us. Enough is enough.

Extremists are a minority – if that was not the case we would have had a religious party majority in the parliament and in the PM’s chair. The party forming the current government has a mandate from the majority of people in this country – a party that was the moderate, liberal option. The cowing down of PPP in the face of a handful ofmullahs, the backtracking on its position on the blasphemy law, not to mention the isolation of its key progressive members who are now dead, dying or facing death threats, is downright unethical and if not criminal.

It is the moral responsibility of all those sitting in parliament, including both the treasury and the opposition, all those claiming to represent the awaam, to leave their differences behind and come together to look at what they are, by their lack of action, collectively allowing the country to become. Silence on these murders is no longer acceptable. The parliament should either unanimously condemn extremism, pledge to purge it and take a unified stand, or they should resign for not having the guts to stand up and save the country.

Murderers should be caught and swiftly punished. Anyone calling for or condoning violence should be immediately arrested and booked under the law, banners inciting and glorifying murder and murderers should be swiftly removed from the streets, mosques and demonstrations should be strictly monitored for hate speech and there should be an immediate clamp-down and arrest of the free-roaming members of known or banned extremist outfits.

The broadcast media, that claims to be a champion of public opinion, should wake up and look beyond their short-term ratings and profits at what they have helped create, an atmosphere of hate, intolerance and a world of doubt, scandal-mongering and conspiracy theories through their irresponsible, yellow journalism practices. There should be an end to sensationalising news stories, an end to ill-researched conspiracy theories and end to shouting matches in talk-shows – an end to media immaturity.

Society at large also needs to come out of slumber.

Discussing this in drawing rooms and dinner parties is not acceptable any longer. We have to be vocal in our stance against extremism. We need to come out on the streets as well, hold candle-light vigils and demonstrations for peace, join human rights forums, boycott anchors and channels justifying extremist views, write about it, paint about it, twitter about it, Facebook about it, do whatever is there in our power to individually and collectively condemn extremism in every way.

This is war indeed – a concerted campaign to violently and shamelessly silence any voice that dares to express dissent to extremist thinking.

Are we going to sit back and allow them to take over?

Express Tribune

Shahbaz Bhatti: Yet another hero falls…

•March 3, 2011 • 2 Comments

Born on September 9, 1968, to a Christian family in Punjab, Shahbaz Bhatti was the only non-Muslim minister in the Pakistan Peoples Party-led (PPP) coalition government.

Bhatti remained a strong critic of the misuse of blasphemy laws enacted by former military ruler General Ziaul Haq, knowing his stance might cost him his life.

The slain minister was one of the founding members of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA) in 1985 and was a representative of the religious minorities in Pakistan. He joined the PPP in 2002. He tabled a bill in the National Assembly Secretariat in 2008 that called for the doubling of minority seats in the national and provincial assemblies, and proposed that seats also be allocated to minorities in the Senate.

After being inducted into the federal cabinet in November 2008, Bhatti said in his first statement: “I have devoted my life to the struggle for human equality, social justice, religious freedom, and to uplift and empower the religious minorities of Pakistan.”

On the morning of Wednesday, March 02, 2011, Federal Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti was killed in the I-8/3 area of Islamabad by three unidentified gunmen.

Express Tribune

Continue reading ‘Shahbaz Bhatti: Yet another hero falls…’