By Nadeem F. Paracha
September 22, 2019
On September 15, the Haripur district education officer
issued a notification directing school principals to ensure that female
students in their respective educational establishments don an Abaya. Such
instructions continue to be issued, even though on several occasions the
involved educational institutions have been forced to withdraw these directives
after facing severe criticism on social media.
Dress codes for female students in most Pakistani
educational institutions are already sufficiently modest. Yet, there have been
cases in which women students have been asked to enhance their modesty with
articles of clothing that are thought to be even more morally correct — as if
the Shalwar Kameez and Dupatta were not good enough.
The reason why such moves now attract more debate and even
annoyance is because they have become anachronisms. They seem out of place.
Indeed, they found more traction back in the 1980s, but the forces that
encouraged such enforced morality in Pakistan are now in the process of rolling
back their previous ideas of morality. Therefore, such instructions and acts
whenever they crop up now, look like relics of a different time.
Let me explain. Morality projects navigated by the state and
certain political and social groups in Pakistan were largely influenced by two
Muslim-majority countries: Saudi Arabia and Iran. In October 2017, Saudi crown
prince, Mohammad bin Salman, who has been spearheading an unprecedented
campaign of social reform in the kingdom, told the UK newspaper The Guardian
that the Saudi monarchy introduced “rigid doctrines” and laws in Saudi Arabia
due to the fall-out of the Islamic Revolution in Iran of 1979.
It is true that Saudi Arabia was not a bastion of liberalism
before 1979, but Prince Salman is correct in pointing out that the country had
followed a more ‘moderate’ strand of Islam before the Iranian Revolution. So,
today, when the Saudi regime is allowing women to drive cars, is reopening
cinemas, and gradually tolerating the presence of women without abayas in
public, it is simply reverting to what was tolerated in the kingdom before
The Iranian Revolution alone was not the only reason why
Saudi Arabia suddenly slapped numerous bans in this respect. King Faisal
Abdulaziz, who ruled the oil-rich kingdom between 1964 and 1975, initiated many
social reforms, mainly in response to the manner in which the secular Arab
nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt had taunted Saudi Arabia of being
“backward.” Nasser, at the time, was one of the most popular leaders in the
In her 2005 book on Saudi Arabia, Professor Sherifa Zuhur
writes that in a bid to overtake Nasser’s Egypt in this context, Faisal rang a
series of social reforms in Saudi Arabia which included the introduction of
television and the construction of cinemas. He also encouraged the entry of
women in workplaces and also ordered the construction of an opera house. Women
were not required to wear the abaya and special areas were designated for
foreigners to enjoy their alcohol.
However, parallel to this, Faisal also patronised members of
the conservative Muslim Brotherhood (MB) who had been expelled by Nasser from
Egypt. Faisal was assassinated in 1975. But despite the fact that his reforms
had drawn criticism from the kingdom’s religious establishment, Faisal’s
successor, King Khaled, continued the reforms.
The Middle East expert Dilip Hiro, in his 2018 book Cold War
in the Islamic World, writes that both Faisal and Khaled ignored the growing
influence of the Sahwa movement which had opposed Faisal’s reforms.
The MB members living in exile in Saudi Arabia radicalised
this movement. In 1979, inspired by the rhetoric of the movement and also by
the criticism of the religious establishment, a group of Saudi militants
captured the Grand Mosque in Makkah. Hundreds were killed in the commotion. And
this happened just months after a radical Islamic regime established itself in
Hiro writes that, even though the leaders of the group were
executed, the Saudi religious establishment lamented that the group’s concerns
were justified because the monarchy had “moved away from real Islam.” This,
coupled with similar criticism aimed at the Saudi monarchy by Iran’s newly
formed Islamic government, suddenly saw the kingdom rapidly rollback the
According to Hiro, thus began a race between Iran and Saudi
Arabia in which both tried to outdo each other and prove they were more
“Islamic” than the other. Iran banned various activities in the country that it
deemed “un-Islamic.” It also introduced a mandatory dress code for women. A
religious police force was formed whose job it was to enforce the dress code
and prevent the public mingling of unrelated men and women.
Saudi Arabia responded by closing down cinemas, increasing
religious programming on TV, banning music and entertainment outlets, and
greatly reducing the number of women on TV, radio and places of work. Women
were required to wear Abayas in public, and no mingling of the sexes was
allowed. Husband and wives were asked to carry their marriage certificates to
prove they were married. A special force, the Mutawa, was formed to impose
Interestingly, it was also in 1979 that so-called “Islamic”
laws were introduced in earnest in Pakistan. The Gen Zia dictatorship came to
power in 1977, but it took two years to introduce the country’s first major set
of religious laws.
Happenings in Iran and Saudi Arabia in 1979 clearly
encouraged the Zia regime to take this step. The fact that Pakistan eventually
became a battlefield of proxy wars between Iran and Saudi Arabia also
contributed, with the Zia regime trying to make Pakistan equally “Islamic” in
this strange new race.
Zia did manage to introduce certain unprecedented laws (in
the name of Islam), but when he tried to replicate ideas such as introducing
dress codes and forming a moral police force, the cultural conditions in
Pakistan were not suited for these and they failed to take root.
In his book Social and Cultural Transformations in a Muslim
Nation, M.A. Qadeer writes that what began in Pakistan as a state-backed
morality project from above was eventually adopted by various social groups
below. These groups began to conduct moral policing by making use of certain
laws introduced through ordinances by the Zia regime.
That’s why, even decades after Zia’s demise and the revival
of reform in Saudi Arabia, one still sees certain segments in Pakistan
decreeing instructions based on their ideas of morality.
Such decrees now do not have direct state or government
backing. Yet, they still manage to create some awkward problems because the
laws that these decrees base their justification on, are still present, like
the elephant in the room.
Original Headline: Elephants In The Room