MMAch Ado about
By Beena Sarwar
All this business
about ‘religious’ extremists attacking
a marathon because women were participating in it,
and then presenting a bill to the National Assembly
seeking to criminalize ‘indecent’ advertisements
brings inevitable memories of the Zia years. The
forces that the General unleashed through the so-called
Islamisation process (meant to keep him in power,
Uncle Sam happy and the Red Bear at bay) are alive
and well, and stronger than ever in Musharraf’s
Pakistan, almost 17 years after his predecessor’s
departure from Earth.
When Gen. Zia’s establishment initially began
the process of curtailing the visibility of women
in the public arena, there were no ‘directives’
to start with. But the forces of the religious right
were implicitly empowered enough to walk into ministries,
institutions and departments, and issue verbal orders
about what was and was not acceptable. Most of the
heads of these ministries, institutions and departments
scrambled to prove their worthiness, outdoing the
king in loyalty and the pope in piety, or whatever
you want to call it, falling into line with the
particular definition of religiosity. It gradually
became almost a criminal activity to engage in the
classical arts particularly dance, painting, and
As women’s sports began to feel the heat,
Shoaib Hashmi penned a skit about the women’s
hockey team. Having got the axe from TV for their
satirical programs, Such Gup and Tal Matol, the
Hashmis and their talented team began doing skits
at private stage performances. With due apologies
to Mr Hashmi, I recall the women’s hockey
skit as being something like this.
Hashmi: And now let’s introduce the Captain
of the Pakistan Women’s Hockey Team, Samina
Ahmed! Ladies and gentlemen, please give her a big
Enter Samina Ahmed, jogging, blowing a whistle:
Hashmi: Samina, thank you for joining us, I know
you have a busy schedule. People here would like
to know about the women’s hockey team, I believe
you’re practicing hard these days...
Samina: Yes, we are (tweeet!). Very hard.
Hashmi: Apparently you had some problems recently...?
Samina: Oh yes, we had some problems. They said
we couldn’t play wearing shorts.
Hashmi: Oh. So then what did you do?
Samina: We said fine, we’ll play in track
Hashmi: Ah. So that’s alright then?
Samina: No, well, then they said that this is un-Islamic
too. So we said fine, we’ll play wearing shalwar
Hashmi: And how did that work out?
Samina: It was ok for a while, but then someone
said that even this is all un-Islamic. They said
we had to wear burqas.
Hashmi: What? You mean you’re playing wearing
Samina: Yes. But then they said that even if we’re
wearing burqas, the spectators will know that underneath
those burqas are women...
Hashmi: Oh dear! So our women’s hockey is
out of competition...?
Samina: No, actually, we’re going to win (Tweeeet!).
Hashmi: Win? What do you mean you’re going
Samina: Well you see, under the burqas, is the men’s
hockey team... (Tweeeeet! jogs off).
Laughter. Applause. Back to square one. In more
ways than one.
Jokes aside, the skit illustrates the warped, self-righteous
mindset that has over the years morphed into violent
Fifteen years ago, following Gen. Ziaul Haq’s
televised address to the nation on June 25, 1988
in which he once again reiterated the need to ‘Islamise’
all areas of life in Pakistan, the state-owned media
went into a flap. That same day, television headquarters
in Islamabad recalled all advertisements featuring
women for ‘review’. A phone call from
the District Magistrate galvanized the police and
cinema owners into action: posters and hoardings
displaying women were draped with black curtains;
some were removed altogether.
Ostensibly, the government wanted to eliminate the
exploitation of women, a very commendable motive.
However, there was (and is) a Censor Board and the
PTV Code of Advertising Standards and Practice that
all filmmakers and advertising agencies had to go
Some questionable images might sometimes slip by
and women were unnecessarily used in advertisements
(as they still are). But recalling all material
featuring women gave out the signal that women should
simply not be seen in public. That is the view upheld
by those who continue to cling to Zia’s obscurantist
Today, these self-appointed keepers of the public
morality feel justified in blackening women’s
faces on billboards all over the country and physically
attacking women participating in public sporting
events. This is the mindset that the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal
is attempting to institutionalize and legalize with
its proposed Prohibition of Indecent Advertisements
Bill 2005, presented to the National Assembly recently.
They have a right to their views -- as long as they
don’t impose them on others. Meanwhile, Akhter
Shah captured the issue eloquently in a recent editorial
cartoon (The News, April 5th)... as the world moves
forward, it does seem like they have their backs
to the starting line.