When Waris Mir published his series of columns on the religious interpretations of veil, he became a target of severe reproach by conservative circles. Then he responded by even more detailed analysis and refused to bow down to the clergy that in his opinion was responsible for wrong interpretations of religion.
He wrote about many who teach religious studies in Pakistan after doing their research in Western countries under the supervision of non-Muslim scholars. They accept Western teachers, spend years in Western countries intermingling with men and women there; but when they come back to Pakistan the question of honour suddenly dawns on them – though they know that a woman in London, New York, or Paris does not face the staring eyes of men; but even a burqa-clad woman becomes a target of shameless stares by men in Pakistan.
Waris Mir questions those scholars who impose religion on trivial matters but never talk about exploitation of women by men. He wonders why nobody talks about women who face difficulty in getting a divorce, or about those who never get any sustenance allowance for themselves and for their children. He writes:
“Over 80 percent women encounter problems in claiming sustenance allowance in Pakistan. Most women in Pakistan are not aware of their rights and they can’t trust the judicial system which does not favour them. They run from pillar to post to claim sustenance allowance for their children from fathers. In most cases the father claims custody of children after divorce and wins the case… The return of dowry is another challenge after divorce and in over 70 percent cases the dowry is withheld, and after divorce a woman hardly manages to get a fraction of her dowry back from her husband or in-laws.” (Page 65)
Waris Mir clarifies that even Western culture just a century or so ago was full of misogyny. He particularly quotes writers such as Aldous Huxley, Charles Dickens, and Thomas Hardy who tell us about the hypocrisy prevailing in the Victorian Age that ended in 1901. He writes; “if anything, any Islamic system must be based on respect for human rights and justice for all segments of society including women; it must eliminate all forms of chauvinism and exploitation; and the real crusade is fighting against injustices.” (Page 68)
He quotes a passage from Justice Qadeeruddin as follows: “Now the fields of knowledge have become so vast that the scholarship of traditional scholars appears to be limited and incomplete. They are not experts in economic affairs to pass judgments on them; they don’t know much about modern warfare to give an opinion about war and peace; they lack an understanding of modern political science to interfere in governance issues and management. History, geography, psychology, sociology, anthropology, new studies in comparative religion, modern logic and philosophy, applied sciences, astronomy are not in their curriculum. Many people know more about such things than traditional scholars.” (Page 69)
Waris Mir laments that when you point out a lack of modern knowledge in traditional scholars, they get angry at educated people and term them Westernized and pleasure-loving. “It is not surprising because in every country education in old style frowns upon disagreement with traditional scholars; if you don’t agree with them they are enraged and try to gag those who ask troubling questions.” He goes on to comment that zeitgeist itself creates new questions and somebody has to respond to them. Even some well-respected scholars fall flat at their attempts.
He quotes Ashraf Ali Thanvi as saying that woman is a creature of crooked nature. Thanvi had inflexible and extremist ideas about women perhaps because of some experiences that were personal and unpleasant. But Mir tells us that Ashraf Ali Thanvi was a staunch opponent of democracy and quotes him as follows: “The rulers can consult their subjects but the subjects themselves don’t have a right to offer advice to their rulers. It is up to the rulers to seek advice or not… It proves that there is no democracy in Islam because in democracy parliament can by itself offer advice to the ruler whether the king seeks it or not.” (Page 71)
Waris Mir writes: “The woman of the 20th century is no more the woman of the 12th or 13th century. Even if she is a wife, she cannot live as a personal property of man. She is a party in all ventures including government and politics. She is an equal and full partner in the world of practice and theory. You cannot push her away from all activities of life.” (Page 74) He clarifies that it does not mean that every woman must dance in clubs and forsake religion; or become an object of entertainment for others. It simply means that Pakistan should not become a medieval papal country that suffocates its people.
In another column, Waris writes about the psychological effects of the veil; in yet another he says that it is misleading to use the term ‘Westernized’ for educated women in Pakistan. Mir quotes from Simone de Beauvoir and Kishwar Naheed to clarify many misconceptions about feminism. On page 90 he writes: “It is imperative that we inculcate in men an awareness to look at and understand women’s problems and their fundamental role in life, without prejudice; and we should also make our women aware of the respect of their own person so that they can equip themselves with the required legal and political tools to claim their rights.”
According to Waris Mir, the use of the term ‘Westernized women’ has done tremendous harm to our society in general as General Zia propagated it to malign and discredit Begum Nusrat Bhutto who was leading the struggle for democracy in the country. The dictator launched a mission against all women so that he could command the support of men in society against Benazir Bhutto and Nusrat Bhutto. General Zia’s all attempt under the guise of Islamization were part of his desire to remain in power as long as possible.
General Zia’s main opponents were women not because of their gender, but because they were at the forefront of the struggle for democracy. The Law of Evidence terming woman’s testimony as half that of a man was also part of the same game plan in which if a woman is relegated to a lower level, she could not claim to be the leader of the people. And for that General Zia had to make sure that all of society became misogynist and anti-women. It was General Zia’s plan to confine women in homes by using expressions such as ‘chaadar and chaardiwari’ so that men forced their wives not to go out.
Luckily, we had columnists such as Waris Mir and writers such as Afzal Tauseef and Fehmida Riaz who exposed the attempts of Gen Zia and his regime, though in the long run we can see the harmful impact of the anti-women rhetoric launched by Zia under the guise of Islamization. He directed all his efforts to propagate a negative image of women as feeble creatures that lack even an ability to testify in a court of law and stand equal to men.
There are many other books by Waris Mir that we can discuss such as ‘Fauj aur Siayasat’ (Army and politics), and ‘Falsafa-e-khushamad’ (The philosophy of flattery), but the readers can find and read them if they wish. Here the purpose was to acknowledge one of our columnists who stood fast in the face of adversity and still serves a guide to us.