OVER A COFFEE : Vulgarity: it comes in threes — Dr Haider Shah
If the defenders of the faith are invoking religious injunctions to impose a clampdown on freedom of media then they need to set their priorities first
The great variety in programmes that various TV channels offer today comes with a price. Depending on age, physical fitness, mental health and indoctrination, different people develop different tastes for the programmes they watch on television. And not all have developed the habit of minding their own business.
It comes in threes. Ansar Abbasi, a decent, soft-spoken journalist is well known for his bent of mind. Qazi Hussain Ahmed, a former head of Jamaat-e-Islami, is a veteran of causes relating to public morality. Justice Wajeehuddin is a former judge respected for his principled past, now affiliated with the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. Without muskets, the three are imbued with the spirit of recreating the world according to their definitions of righteousness.
Terms like vulgarity are subjective abstractions with no absolute definitions. Even within Pakistan, one cannot find a common definition of vulgarity. Maulvi Sufi Mohammad of the TNSM movement once declared that a decent woman comes out of her house only twice in her life: on marriage and on her funeral. The strict faith element apart, even at the cultural level those women who do not observe purdah in public are not considered modest in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, FATA, southern Punjab and Balochistan. Even in urban centres like Lahore and Karachi, we see a great variety in the lifestyle of people living in different parts of the cities.
We do not live in countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia or North Korea, where the ruling establishment defines what is proper for the whole country. We are a country with a heterogeneous composition in terms of ethnicities, social attitudes and lifestyles. The critics can invoke a psychology-based argument that the honourable judges and the three defenders of the faith belong to the old generation. What they see as vulgar may be entirely due to the fact that psychologically, they have a grudge against the younger generation as they are unable to enjoy life the way younger people are capable of doing it. Perhaps, Faraz would have summed it up as Khud naheen rakhte to auron ke bujhate hain chiraagh (They do not possess them themselves therefore they are blowing out others’ lamps).
The need for rating programmes is a different issue. Children should not be exposed to programmes that have content of explicit nature. The western countries enforce this regulation very strictly. However, I see a bit of a problem in imitating the western model. Children in western countries go to bed around 8 pm and one can hardly see young children awake after 9 pm. In Pakistan, children accompany parents to various events and there are no cultural norms of going to bed early. It will thus be very difficult for any age-related rating system to work unless cultural norms also undergo a fundamental change.
If the defenders of the faith are invoking religious injunctions to impose a clampdown on freedom of media then they need to set their priorities first. To illustrate my point let me quote verses from Surah Baqrah (2:278-279), which state that those who charge interest on capital are engaged in a war against Allah and his Messenger. No comparable verse is found with respect to issues that our three defenders of the faith appear to be obsessed with. In Surah Tauba (9:34) God declares that those who hoard gold and silver in their boxes and do not spend it in the way of Allah, a painful torment awaits them. When our defenders of the faith, with the bulldozer of the apex court, raze to the ground all tall and glittering buildings of banks and throw all bankers out of their unholy jobs, and when they ban ostentatious wearing of golden jewellery and outlaw all sarafa (gold) bazaars, only then can they turn their attention to the necklines and sleeve lengths of women’s clothes.
Cultural definitions of modesty are not only different across various social groups, they also change over time within the same group. For instance in Shakespeare’s time, young boys used to perform female roles in plays, as it was not considered culturally permissible for women to act on stage. Similarly, in his autobiography, Josh Malihabadi narrates that palkis (palanquins) were made heavier with stones so that the carriers could not guess the age of the women sitting inside.
Different people would view vulgarity differently. Once searching on the Internet, I stumbled upon a speech delivered by Justice Wajeehuddin in a gathering where he denounced a former colleague as an Ahmedi with contempt. To me, this kind of discourse is a display of vulgarity. Similarly thrashing of professors in their offices by student activists of Jamaat-e-Islami in Punjab University is an example of real obscenity for me. If the honourable court is bent upon pursuing the case then it must also listen to Hasan Nisar, so that a more rounded view on a highly contentious issue emerges.
It is high time we stopped believing that modesty is skin deep. The Punjab Assembly was quick in taking its resolution on music concerts back once negative reaction was shown about it. The honourable judges may also remember that miscarriage of justice is caused when there exists bias in the minds of judges. Racism and religious bigotry are some of the most prominent sources of bias. The judges should be seen as defenders of fundamental rights and not as an overstretched arm of the fundamentalists. Modesty and faith are therefore sensitive issues, which better be left to the people to decide.
The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of the Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org