Jeans, hijab or whatnot — No one, including Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, should be judging women on a piece of clothing

Updated 19 Sep, 2021 04:18pm

What women want is the freedom to choose what to wear. And not be judged/groped/degraded for it.

She wears a sleeveless top, she must be of "loose morals". She drapes a dupatta on her head, she must be "so backward". What exactly is the right attire for women in our society? No one can seem to figure it out (never mind how women themselves actually want to dress) but that doesn't seem to stop the men from having their say on the opposite sex's clothing.

The latest person to have many people up in arms is physicist and academic Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy who recently made uncalled for remarks about women in hijabs and abayas in classrooms.

He appeared on G for Gharidah on TV One on September 14 along with Dr Mariam Chugati and Dr Ayesha Razzaq to discuss the Single National Curriculum.

The conversation veered from the promotion of rote learning in the Pakistani education system to the depiction of women in the newly published SNC textbooks — that many have taken exception to.

"There are pictures and illustrations of girls and women sitting on the floor in which they are shrouded (lipti wi hain), said Dr Hoodbhoy.

"But when they [young students] see other women in bazaars or elsewhere who aren’t shrouded, they’ll think it’s wrong," he said. He called the textbooks an attempt to perpetuate gender stereotypes and said he had a lot of issues with it.

"This is an attempt at Talibanisation. Imran Khan's government is trying to make us into Afghanistan," he added.

Dr Hoodbhoy was speaking on gender stereotyping and yes, that's a pertinent issue. But taking a stand against stereotyping means being more inclusive and emphasising the importance of diversity, not singling out one group of women who dress a certain way.

Bringing up his time at Quaid-e-Azam University, where he started teaching in 1973, Dr Hoodbhoy said 47 years ago it was difficult to see a single girl in a burka. "Now, hijabs and burkas have become commonplace. It is rare to see a normal girl now," the academic said.

"And when they sit in class , shrouded in a hijab or burka, their activity, their participation in class is very poor [ghatia], to the point where you can’t tell if they’re in class or not," he said.

He added that even earlier female students "didn't ask a lot of questions" but occasionally when they did, he would happily answer the queries.

Before addressing Dr Hoodbhoy's problematic remarks, let's get one thing of the way; there's a lot yet to be explored about the SNC and this article isn't about that. Criticism by academics, including Dr Hoodbhoy, that women are allegedly given a lower status in the books should be addressed by the government and other academics.

Dr Ayesha Razzaq also raised the point that representation of women is apparently less in the curriculum and that women have been dressed in a "more stereotypical way while there is diversity for men". What she didn't do, however, was pull down the women represented in these books, i.e. the ones in hijab, burka and niqab.

Clothes don't define a women

People — usually men — often use women's clothes to make a point and judge a woman's morality and character. Whether they say women wearing less clothes than they would like makes them immodest and vulgar (fahash) or whether they believe wearing a scarf on your head somehow makes you less intellectual and outspoken than your peers — it's all the same. Men have been judging women based on their clothes for far too long.

People often equate feminism and the movement with a confused definition of liberalism. They believe that feminists are fighting for women's right to wear what they want — and slogans like mera jism meri marzi do cover different aspects of policing a woman's body — but that can only be 'skimpy' items of clothing.

No. What women want is the freedom to choose. And not be judged/groped/degraded for it.

Feminism wants that women should be able to wear what they please, be it a niqab, a hijab or none of the two. Separating women into two categories — ones who wear hijabs or niqabs and the 'normal' ones — is no different from people who cry "fahash" when they see women who aren't covered up to their satisfaction. In both cases, you're judging a woman based on what she's wearing and that's not right.

We know that the revered Dr Hoodbhoy has been around for years and must have interacted with all types of people, but to generalise based on your experiences is everything gender stereotyping stands against.

And what exactly are 'normal' women? The way society dictates a woman's 'acceptable' attire or demeanour depending on their location, their social circle, their profession and other parameters is not just laughable, it's downright insulting.

This is real life, not a dress up game.

Sartorial choices ≠ IQ range

Dear all liberals and conservatives, please don't reduce a woman's entire personality to her sartorial choices. Wearing a hijab or niqab does not affect anyone's intelligence — what you might be mistaking their reluctance for is the lack of confidence that comes from households, peers, and sometimes even teachers. We're not surprised to hear from you that women (not just the lipti wi) are more reluctant than their male counterparts to ask questions because we live in a society that prefers its women — all women, regardless of their clothing — to be demure (read quiet) than bold (read opinionated).

We would expect someone as learned as Dr Hoodbhoy to not generalise his experiences onto a whole population of women and carefully choose his words. Just like the Khalilur Rehmans of this country have their followers who hang on to their every anti-feminist word, many hold Dr Hoodbhoy in high esteem and would be influenced by his belittling of women who dress a certain way.

Wearing a scarf doesn't slash your IQ and neither does dyeing your hair blond, as stereotypes would have you believe. A person's intellect has nothing to do with the clothes they wear.

Make your very valid point about gender stereotypes and the roles imposed on women, but leave their clothes out of it. Talk about a more diverse portrayal of women without looking down on any one group. Unlike with other clothing, for some, niqab, hijab and burka hold a deep religious value — they should not serve as a prop or be caricatured (we're also looking at you, Kiran Naz, for the niqab stunt).

At the end of the day, it all boils down to this — stop judging women for what they wear. No matter what your political leanings are, leave women and their clothes alone.

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