Authorities in Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Haripur, another city in the conservative province, last week issued a directive to all government educational institutions mandating female students to wear an abaya, a body-shrouding garment that covers a woman’s body from head to toe.
Ziaullah Bangash, the education adviser for the region’s chief minister, said the decision was made to ensure the safety of female students following visits to several regional schools.
The notice triggered an outcry on social media, where the move was harshly criticised as a “cheap publicity feat,” oppressive and a reminder of the days when parts of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province were ruled by the Pakistani Taliban.
Authorities withdrew the order following the backlash. But many conservative Pakistanis had favoured the directive and criticised its withdrawal.
Women’s protection or political gains?
Senator Sherry Rehman described as “bizarre” the government’s wish to police women’s bodies and clothing at a state level. “This is certainly not a promise that any progressive party makes,” she said.
Rehman compared the current situation with the dictatorship of General Zia ul Haq in the 1980s, a time when Pakistan witnessed sweeping Islamization of its society and state institutions.
“It reminds us of the times of the Zia regime, when veiling in public offices, schools and television was made legal and the norm, which we see has been reversed,” she told DW. “Pakistani society is fairly moderate. So the freedom to make such a choice must be available.”
Many leaders of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek e Insaaf (PTI) party have also publicly condemned the government’s directive.
Ali Khan Tareen, a young PTI politician, mocked the move in a tweet, asking girls to have “pepper spray instead of chadors.”
Pakistan’s federal minister for science and technology, Fawad Chaudry, suggested that women were free to choose their attire and a dress code should not be enforced by the government.
The social division
Religious conservatives, however, called the withdrawal of the notification a “cowardly move.” Maimoona Malik, a Pakistani-origin Islamic scholar based in Saudi Arabia and daughter of the late Islamic cleric Ghulam Murtaza, called the withdrawal a “wrong move.”
She told DW that the decision would have enabled parents from conservative backgrounds to send their daughters to higher education with a feeling of security.
“Islam demands Muslim women to cover their bodies, so they could be protected from evil intentions of men. The area is conservative and girls are already covering up their bodies according to the teachings of Islam, so there was no reason to issue such a notification.”
Civil rights activist Jibran Nasir argued that forcing women to dress in a certain way, whether on religious or social grounds, removes the women’s right of choice.
“It is a part of the larger patriarchal view of society that women should not decide for themselves,” Nasir said. “They should seek consent of men every step of the way. It is a systematic way of shattering their confidence, limiting their thinking, making them believe they don’t have any free will, that the more obedient they are to men the better they are as women,” Nasir explained. The activist also pointed out that the mindset results in many women “internalising patriarchal values so much that they eventually become vocal advocates for patriarchy telling other women to learn to obey orders.”
In Pakistani society, women face serious challenges and hardships, including acid attacks, honour killings and domestic violence. The female literacy rate is less than 50%, whereas male literacy rate is 69%, according to the 2017-18 Pakistan Economic Survey.
Social Media outcry
On social media, people expressed differing opinions, with some supporting the proposal, while others lambasting it.
Manzoor Ali, a social media user, condemned the move in his tweet, saying that the government is “repressing victims.”
Pakistani pop singer Shehzad Roy called on the government to “change conditions instead of changing girls.”
But some supporters of the veil requested the government to impose it all over the country.