Arabic is not ‘in danger’ in Pakistan, women and minorities are

There has been no apology from the men who couldn't tell Quranic verses from Arabic words, and were ready to kill over their ignorance.
Updated 27 Feb, 2024

I’ve always had a fascination with letters or words in Arabic and Urdu; ironically, the former I can’t speak (apart from the basic conversational phrases) and the latter is weak compared to my English language skills. My appreciation for the letters came from a purely aesthetic perspective and for the words from their history, which I find richer than their equivalents in English.

It only made sense to me that the beautiful and often abstract lines and curves of the Arabic script, from typography to calligraphy, be translated onto clothes and jewellery. My first time ‘wearing a language’ was on a scarf featuring colourful Arabic letters, which I wore tied around my neck or tossed over the shoulder. And I clearly remember being told at the time — and this is easily as far back as 20 or so years ago — that ‘wearing Arabic’ was disrespectful. The reasoning, when asked, was always the same: because the Holy Quran is written in Arabic.

A little context: I grew up in the Middle East so I had heard people converse, curse and fight in Arabic. So the religious reasoning for the “disrespect” of the language never made sense. And interestingly, it never came from the people who spoke it; it was always the Pakistanis who perceived Arabic to be as sacred as the text of the holy book.

My love for lettering continued, despite a few frowns here and there, in the form of clothes, jewellery, and eventually learning calligraphy. Unfortunately, this article is not meant for me to write more about such style pieces but about the incident that took place in Lahore’s crowded Ichra Bazaar on Sunday.

I’m not using an adjective before “incident” because I don’t know which one to choose: shameful, horrible, ignorant, misogynistic, ugly, terrifying — the list goes on.

Here’s the crux: a woman decided to exist in a city in Pakistan. But not only did she exist, she decided to wear something that was bright and colourful. Not only that, her dress had Arabic letters. Naturally, the male gaze that all Pakistani women know follows you to every nook and corner of this country no matter what and how much or little you wear, fixated on her clothes. The simple act of wearing a fabric with random Arabic letters and words like helwa (meaning beautiful) was deemed ‘blasphemous’ by a charged group of men who took it upon themselves to be the judge and jury — and executioners had the police not arrived at the scene.

The mob, with clearly limited understanding of the religion they were up in arms to defend, kept on insisting “blasphemy” — a charge that is punishable by death by law and an accusation that has led to multiple incidents of public lynching in this country — had been committed while the shopkeepers and traders tried to tell them the fabric featured no Quranic verses.

Moments leading up to her rescue by the Punjab police, the woman could be seen shaking with fear. In a country where women being stripped naked is not unheard of and death by lynching over allegations of blasphemy are far too many, what this woman must have gone through while taking shelter in a shop while blood-thirsty men stood outside is something only she knows and the rest of us can imagine.

She was spared her life but not without an admission of guilt; her admission of guilt started with her being covered in a burqa while the crowd stood resolute, and being whisked away by the police as the chants and camera recordings continued. It ended with her being “forgiven”, as one man says in the video shared by the police, and an apology from her for her unintentional gustakhi.

The message this video sends to all the women in this country is don’t fight back, don’t even try. Even if you’re right, even if you’re accompanied by your husband, even if you’re at no fault, and even if forgiveness should be sought by those who accused you falsely.

There’s been no clarification or apology from those who mistook words from a language due to their own lack of knowledge for holy words, terrorised a woman and declared themselves the religious police.

Granted, the video of her apology could possibly be a safety measure following the woman’s release from police custody given our history with blasphemy accusations and how they can follow the accused. There’s a reason why Aasia Bibi, even though acquitted of blasphemy charges from the highest court of the land, still doesn’t live in her own country.

Nevertheless, the video should make every citizen of this country feel shame, disgust, fear, and anger. Here’s a woman apologising for doing absolutely nothing wrong, except for giving into her fondness for lettering, like I and many others have, and for existing, like I and all other women do.

Sadly, instead of feeling any of the above at what she has been made to go through, there are still those who are outraged at the use of a language on clothes, as evident by some comments under pictures on the page of a Kuwaiti brand that has designs in the same print. To quote one highly uninformed comment: “You are making a joke of Islam and Muslims.” As if all of the respect and honour of a religion was hanging by the loose thread of a dress with Arabic on it.

The entire incident tells us one thing clearly: the people who want the woman’s head on a plate are ignorant about the very religion they want “to protect”. How many, I wonder, have actually read the Holy Quran? How many have learnt Arabic to know what they are reading? How many have gone beyond the “sanctity” of a language to truly understand the teachings of Islam?

In a country where women face blame for being raped while minorities have to go out of their way to prove they didn’t mean any insult, such incidents drive home the same point we have heard time and again from sane quarters: religious zealots need to be reined in. The country cannot afford another Jaranwala or Sialkot. The same province that elected and celebrated its first ever-female head on Monday cannot have a repeat of what happened on Sunday.

For this, the state and all political and religious parties need to condemn this incident in unequivocal terms and come up with solutions to not weaponising blasphemy laws; practical and unapologetic solutions that don’t keep letting perpetrators go free and which are based on accountability and not appeasement of fanaticism.

The Gulberg Circle ASP Sheharbano Naqvi could only rescue the woman by assuring the mob that she had “handled three such incidents”. But should there even be a need for such assurances by law enforcers?

A Karachi brand, Manto, featuring Urdu calligraphy on its pieces felt the need to ask its customers “if you ever feel uncomfortable or unsafe wearing your Manto outfit then please just set them aside”. But should a clothing brand even have to bear responsibility for endangering someone’s life while having done no wrong?

The Kuwaiti brand simply said they use Arabic words and letters in different fonts “since it’s our language”. Did this even need to be said?

Coming back to the commentary I mentioned at the start of this article that I encountered while wearing clothes and jewellery with Arabic and Urdu script, a language is not “disrespected” if it’s printed on a fabric or on silver. Arabic has been used for multiple purposes by Muslims and non-Muslims, and has been around for centuries and will continue to be. Its “honour” is not in danger; the women and minorities of this country, and their right to exist, are.


Ali Hayder Feb 27, 2024 12:38pm
Anyone who dares to differ is under threat, it's not about women or minorities only. Lack of acceptance, illiteracy, and hate-induced minds accept nothing but what they have been conditioned to believe.
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NYS Feb 27, 2024 12:45pm
Ignorance vs education Fanatic vs moderate this polarization is distasteful... Think before you act
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Hassan Feb 27, 2024 01:38pm
Another consequence of ignorance and lack of justice. Our justice system has miserably failed at all levels!
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Syed Hasni Feb 27, 2024 04:45pm
تعلموا العربية فإنها تثبت العقل وتزيد في المروءة “Learn Arabic, for it strengthens the intelligence and increases one’s noble conduct”
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Sukena Rizvi Feb 27, 2024 05:30pm
Put together beautifully.
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Mahboob Alem Feb 27, 2024 07:46pm
Another legacy of General Ziaul Huq
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Maqsood Choudary Feb 27, 2024 08:04pm
It is ignorance, arrogance, misogyny, and populism. Arabic, like so many other languages, is a means of communication and nothing more. The way the young lady was forced to apologize was disgusting and dehumanizing.
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Junaid Ahmed Feb 28, 2024 03:13am
It's just ignorance at its peak, Respecting all (men and women) is an important factor to make strong a society,but here are these enemy of peace doing this without any reason.we condemn this act .
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pa99 Feb 28, 2024 04:28am
Shameful behavior from the mob. Reserve respect for religion but also for humanity.
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Amit Feb 28, 2024 05:08am
Very balanced point of view. Best wishes
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Mrs Arshad Feb 28, 2024 05:30am
Ignorance at its best. Instead of asking the woman to apologise to the mob for the crime she hasn’t committed, police should have arrested the mob for a day on the charge of disorderly behaviour. If we punish these mobs then and there, then they tend to decline eventually.
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Anees Feb 28, 2024 06:59am
Even the educated people are making a mess of it on social media platforms.. What was written on her dress was NOT 'Halwa'. It was 'Hilwa' which means "sweet' or 'cute' in Arabic. Its masculine is 'Hilo'.
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Kamesh Indian Feb 28, 2024 07:31am
Sad .unless education is given priority..More of this kind of incidents can be expected.. We Indians give Priority for education..Education is the tool for Success...
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Kamran Khalid Feb 28, 2024 08:37am
Welcome to Pakistan a country where people are killed just because of clothes they wear. I feel sad for Pakistan. My parents are from Pakistan but I have spent most of my life abroad. I have lived and visited many countries but what I have seen in Pakistan is on another level. In Pakistan should learn to mind their own business instead of telling people what to wear and what not to wear. No wonder our neighbor India has progressed so much and we are still stuck in 1900s
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Irfan Huq Feb 28, 2024 09:54am
They do not need apology,They n66d to prosecute some of the men for harassing and endangering the life of a person
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Ubaid Niaz Feb 28, 2024 10:26am
State should start punishing the people who incite mob violence irrespective of their associations. Side by side public and private partnership either should incorporate this as part of curriculum or social media messages to educate people that respecting language won't earn you any laurel but following its message in spirit might make you a decent human being. Further people should be educated about islam came for bringing people out of the caves and not making them stay in cave mentality and sadly this is what it is here in our country.
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Yasir khan brohi Feb 28, 2024 12:24pm
Such incidents take place owing to lack of education. It has nothing to do with religion, but illiteracy propels them to commit such heinous acts.
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A Feb 28, 2024 12:50pm
Why haven't the religious leaders said anything yet? What's stopping them?
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sj Feb 28, 2024 01:12pm
every language is unique and has its beauty closely associated with geography and socio-culture, it is sad to see language or script-based bias, hate, and violence .... only sick-minded...
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najeeb Feb 28, 2024 03:09pm
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me. —Martin Niemöller
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Reddy Feb 28, 2024 09:39pm
Not at all surprised.
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Ahsan Feb 28, 2024 10:48pm
Illiteracy and lack of common sense was on full display in this incident. However i would disagree that misogyny had anything to do with this sad event. If you watch the videos circulating, you can clearly hear women blaming her for ridiculing islam. I believe if it was a man he would already be dead. Only thing that saved this woman from the mob was her being a woman.
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Graeme Feb 29, 2024 09:37am
A very thoughtful and well written observation on what occurred. Education, tolerance and understanding need to be encouraged by all.
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jsav12 Feb 29, 2024 08:23pm
The mobbers should be arrested for disrupting the peace and threatening violence towards an innocent person. They committed multiple crimes under Pakistani law.
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SJA Mar 03, 2024 06:27pm
An outcome of ignorance and lack of education + analyse.
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