A blog post at Express Tribune has been really bothering me. The post by Faiza Rahman is critical of the use of ‘personal choice’ as justification for certain behaviours like drinking alcohol. What bothers me is the question of whose ‘personal choice’ counts as being ‘selfish’.
Let’s apply the author’s thinking to her own situation. Faiza is an undergraduate student pursuing a major in political sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. Certainly this will be quite upsetting to Taliban who do not believe that women belong in either schools or politics. In fact, these militants fundamentalists may well take significant violent acts in response to what they view as Faiza’s choice to violate the dictates of religion and social norms.
From the photo that accompanies her blog post, we can also see that Faiza does not cover her head in public. Taken a step further, she is not wearing niqab. Taken a step further still, why is she taking photos at all? Are not images of animate beings haram? Depends on who you ask, doesn’t it? In other words, to observe purdah or refuse photographs depends on ‘personal choice’.
Fazia asks a great question in her post: “The question is: where do we draw the line?” Fazia wants us to think about this from the perspective of how far can people exploit individualism, as if the country is under threat of anarchy in which every man and woman does whatever they want with no thought to consequences. But I believe we need to be asking the other side of the question: Who chooses what is demanded of religion? Who chooses what is a social norm that must be followed?
Fazia complains that her friend wore a sleeveless top and in response ‘the regular desi crowd behaving as expected’. Fazia tells her friend “she should have changed into something that showed less skin”. Why Fazia criticises her friend for wearing sleeveless kameez and not ‘the regular desi crowd’ for being immature jerks?
In Pakistan, drinking alcohol is officially banned. But it’s far from absent, and not just among the fashionable crowd. Even some very ‘pious’ uncles are known to sip a little whisky in private. Pressed on the issue they will explain that alcohol must stay banned because the less religious, more impressionable masses – sometimes called ‘the regular desi crowd’ – cannot handle it. Again it is clear that ‘personal choice’ in this case really means, ‘I will make your choices for you’. What should also be considered is that alcohol is the least of the problems facing the nation now.
Where do we draw the line is a question that is not asked enough, and it is not being asked the right way. People like Fazia Rahman want to draw the line for other people and they want to do so based on the reaction of the most conservative elements in society. According to her philosophy, whoever is the most fundamentalist their views should be respected. Whoever is the most tolerant, they should quietly conform to the conservative position so as not to upset the sensitive feelings of fundamentalists. This philosophy says that eve teasing is the fault of women, not men.
NFP had a great quote the other day that should be added to the national curriculum
‘My being or not being a Muslim begins and ends in my head. I am more concerned about the answers we Muslims are giving to those who are accusing us of violence and destruction. The state of Muslim intellectualism is the pits these days. We are collapsing inwards with outdated talk about laws constructed hundreds of years ago by inflexible men and their followers who would like to see Muslim societies turn into static totalitarian societies! What is our intellectual response to all this? Is it science, philosophy and reason, or is the response only about nice, brightly smiling Muslims like you who are only obsessed about cramping as many Muslims in a mosque as possible? The intellectual and political space in Islam is being filled by theological dogma, self-righteous antics and mere ritual. Wake up!’
The fact is that complaining about drinking or sleeveless kameez is like complaining that the sofa does not match the chair while the entire house is on fire. The most severe problems in society are not the result of modern fashions or alcohol. They are the result of intolerant people who believe their own ‘personal choice’ should be the law for everyone else. There needs to be a line drawn, yes, but the people who need to be warned not to cross are not college students in sleeveless kameez but mullahs and militants who use threats and violence to force their own ‘personal choice’ onto other people.