By Anwar Iqbal ,Dawn/Asia News Network
Muslim societies are gradually opening up, when it comes to women. The older culture of segregation was based on early marriages, which helped prevent sexual frustration. But economic pressure and evolving social attitudes are rapidly changing that tradition. Many in the cities, particularly the educated middle class, are in their 30s when they get married. More and more women are coming out of their sheltered places. There are girls’ schools and colleges in every city and town, and even in the bigger villages. Hundreds of thousands of women go out to work every day. So the chances of unmarried men and women meeting each other are stronger now than ever before. It was having an obvious impact on the society, slowly but surely shifting social and moral attitudes. In the 1970s, a veiled woman was a rare sight in Pakistani colleges and universities. In an institution of 5,000 girls, not even 50 covered their faces. But the veil staged a comeback under Zia and it spread as those who grew up under his strict religious codes came to colleges and universities. Today, the scarf has replaced the veil, but it is more common than it ever has been. It’s not just a woman in abaya who wears a scarf. Those in jeans do too. But it did not stop mixing of genders as economic pressure forced an increasing number of women to go out and work. Sometimes, Muslims also can be very expressive, very open. Sex is not something you discuss in public, but nobody stops the quack doctors and the itinerant experts from doing so on the roadside. The expert describes every action and every gesture in vivid detail, often with the help of Western magazines, and nobody seems to mind. Many stores and storekeepers love to display women’s undergarments, and nobody seems to mind. Such displays are more than a mere device to sell the merchandise. Often it is an expression of the storekeeper’s sexuality or perhaps an attempt to lure a male customer into the shop. Youngsters can be seen staring wide-eyed at the forbidden goods. They often go inside for a closer look and end up buying something else to justify the visit.
Opening Up, but Not Allowed to Live with Confidence Television and newspaper advertisements are full of innuendoes. Sometimes women can be seen promoting even exclusively male objects, such as a razor blade or an after-shave. Fashion models in the Muslim world have mastered the art of exposing everything, while at the same time keeping a token cover-up. The qameez or long skirt never slips, but all the curves and contours are still visible. All this hide-and-seek has made women extremely vulnerable. They are no more the objects behind the veil that they used to be. They are no more protected from male eyes by the four walls and thick curtains that separated their world from that of the men. Yet, at the same time they are not allowed to come out and live with confidence. This half-hidden and half-exposed woman gets neither the respect the Muslim culture claims to give her, nor the economic strength that the opportunity to come out and work for a living provides her. She is no longer a traditional Muslim, and therefore, does not enjoy the protection that her position behind the veil automatically provided her.