July Issue 2007

By | News & Politics | Published 17 years ago

In February, Geo Television airs shocking footage of women veiled from head-to-toe in black and brandishing Kalashnikovs inside the premises of Jamia Hafsa. What follows is the image of a woman addressing a class of young girls with colourful dupattas covering their heads. “Students! Are you ready to challenge the government, the army and the police?” she asks the young girls, who probably do not even understand the repercussions of challenging state authority. “Yes, Baji!” the girls squeal with enthusiasm. Next follows another call to action: “Students! Will you chase away the government, the army and the police?” They respond with equal excitement, “Yes, Baji!”

By the end of March, I am so intrigued by the Jamia Hafsa that I decide to interview its students on camera. Sitting in Karachi, I imagine I would have to dodge the government and its intelligence sleuths, who probably watch over the building 24 hours a day, in order to steal my camera into the premises. I discuss the pros and cons of such a daring venture with fellow journalists. I must confess that I even toyed with the idea of wearing a burqa to gain entry into Hafsa’s cloistered precincts. Later, I realise that I have been unnecessarily paranoid about “the other.”

So here I am, flying into Islamabad to meet with the subjects of my curiosity. Within hours, I walk into the Jamia Hafsa madrassah, dressed as I normally do. I deposit my phone at the entrance and am taken through several rooms full of young girls — just like in any other school dorm — giggling, chattering away, looking just like me, but without any make-up. There are no black veils, not yet.

There are only a handful of women you are allowed to converse with in a madrassah that ostensibly houses hundreds. They form what is called the Student Action Committee, which includes teachers as well. Interestingly, several women, not belonging to the madrassah, walk in and out, without prior appointments. They are welcomed by around 30 handshakes, and get to enjoy chilled Amrat Cola and Slanty crisps. An added bonus: you get to see their smiling faces — and they look like any of us.

Umm-e-Hassan, the vice principal of the madrassah, seems reluctant to talk to me as she is unhappy with the way the media has projected them. I promise her that I have come to restore “objectivity,” and after obtaining Maulana Ghazi’s permission on the phone, I am made to feel at home.

In what seems like an exercise in skilled public relations, Umm-e-Hassan and company spend their valuable time discussing religion and politics with me. They complain about their misrepresentation in the media and the “fahash” (read: sexually immoral) policies of President Musharraf’s government. Ask them a tricky question, and they veer the discussion to the relatively safe topics of economic inequality in society, the moral corruption of those in higher ranks and the country’s puppet regime working at the behest of the much despised United States of America.

Umm-e-Hassan happens to be the wife of Maulana Abdul Aziz, the chief cleric of Lal Masjid. She has a very kind and gentle face, and she exudes grace and intelligence. She is pretty and, yes, tall. The young girls surrounding her are definitely in awe of her and, yet, there seem to be few barriers.

These women claim to be the proud flag-bearers of women’s rights and empowerment, freedom, social equality and democracy. They want to end the exploitation of women. They believe in their cause and are willing to face bullets in the line of their mission. Well then, what is the problem with all of this?

LA student at the Jamia Hafsa tells me that the extraordinarily tall burqa-clad women with batons, who blockaded the children’s library in Islamabad, were actually angels. And that when Mohammed Younus burned CDs and DVDs from his own shop, ababeels started circling in the sky. They claim that they received the message of jihad in their dreams directly from God Almighty who sent the Prophet. Dressed in white and mounted on a white horse, God’s viceregent handed them a sword and urged them on.

My problem with them begins when they claim to see angels and ababeels and a sword-wielding Prophet on a white horse.

Faces uncovered, they talk to me for an hour, and I feel as though I might get over my reservations during the course of our conversation. The atmosphere is friendly, and we discover much in common: dissatisfaction with the state of Pakistan and international politics. However, the discussion constantly reverts to how increasingly sinful Pakistani society is becoming. And while disagreeing with them in my heart, somehow, I start to feel guilty.

A woman walks in with her two school-going daughters. She’s a fan of these “brave” women. They start lambasting the government over its treatment of the Jamia Hafsa students. “Where are the arms? Do they think we would store weapons in the same building where we house thousands of young girls?” ask the students repeatedly. I am constantly reminded of the footage of Kalashnikov-wielding students I had seen on television, but being aware of my surroundings, I hold my tongue.

There is an undeniable sense of pride in the air — the kind that is hard to explain, but which perhaps only a woman in a patriarchal society can feel when she finally dares to slap a man on the street after being harassed several times.

When I put in a request to interview the students and the teachers on camera, the same women immediately don black chaddors and huddle together to pose for the lens. I can no longer see their faces, not even their eyes. I can tell only one of them apart because she is wearing glasses. With a black screen covering their being, they become less friendly, less accessible, more aggressive and, to the outsider, expressionless.

I am given a sampling of the difference between western and Islamic cultures — in one, a woman is told that confidence lies in being able to look a person in the eye, while in the other, she is expected to keep her gaze lowered. With my head uncovered while I film, I feel the burden of being a woman, of my morality being under scrutiny. I am extremely conscious of my sexuality which, I learn, through my interaction with my Hafsa sisters, is a possible threat to a pristine world. And I thought only men could make me feel so vulnerable!

jamia-hafsa-2-july07Umm-e-Hassan proceeds to enlighten me on the details of Auntie Shamim’s kidnapping. Young girls had complained to the madrassah about being lured into working for a brothel by Auntie Shamim’s gang. The police, they claim, didn’t take action against ‘Auntie’ because she had links with many important politicians. The Hafsa brigade tried to talk Auntie Shamim out of prostitution, but she remained adamant. Consequently, kidnapping became the only option. “She refused to listen to us in her own house, so we brought her here,” says Umm-e-Hassan. The girls say they were very kind to their hostages, and even pressed Auntie’s tired legs, bought her medicines and nappies for the new-born child with her. However, Auntie remained belligerent and confessed to having a seven-year-old son, whereas her husband had died 10 years ago. Umm-e-Hassan poses a ‘vital’ question: “I am also married, and I know how long a pregnancy lasts. Was she trying to tell me that she was pregnant for three years?”

I am curious to know why they had only attacked the women, and not the men who frequent the brothels and keep them running. The question is followed by silence. One of them tries to save the day by arguing that since they themselves were women, they could approach the women more easily. Another says, “No, no,” and everyone turns to her, hoping she will have a more intelligent answer than that. And then it comes: “Because we need to get to the root of evil, and it is with these women where it all begins.” The rest nod in relief.

My meeting with them takes place before their fatwa against Nilofar Bakhtiar for a seemingly innocent hug with her skydiving trainer, followed by their accusations of blasphemy against Christian nurses at a hospital in Pindi and Maulana Ghazi’s condemnation of Shoaib Mansoor’s yet-to-be-released film Khuda Ke Liye without even seeing it. So the only issue worth discussing from their point of view, in the light of Shariat, is obviously zina. There seems to be no other preoccupation — not even in Maulana Abdul Aziz’s sermons from the pulpit.

Umm-e-Hassan mentions one such case. “We have just received a case in which a brother and a sister have been living as man and wife for three years. Now, do we want our next generation to be the products of incest?” It seems like she expects me to respond, but I stare back in disbelief at her ability to generalise so easily. And she continues, “If that’s what liberal people want, then they should move to Europe. They should leave Pakistan. Pakistan is ours, and we will live here. It is our home, and we will cleanse it ourselves.”

Brothels, films, media, women, government et al. is woven into the fabric of “western indecency.” Is this the only burning issue in our society? I ask. What about the more pressing problems of increasing poverty, inequalities, bonded labour, unemployment, disenfranchisement and illiteracy?

I am told that the solution lies in the imposition of Shariah. By their reckoning, the root of every problem is the West and the western formula of liberalism that is creeping steadily into the lives of all Pakistanis. Therefore, the only issue worth discussing in Pakistan is the increasing immorality — especially among women. So, in effect, the ultimate problem lies with me, my gender.

It is only natural then that we discuss the possibility of my joining the Jamia Hafsa and of being at one with them. There is much excitement in the air, and the idea is welcomed by all. One girl from Karachi explains how even the impossible is possible. “I was a complete tomboy, had short hair, never even wore shalwar kameez, let alone, a dupatta. My friend used to tell me that we are all sinners. And I would say, ‘What sin?’ I thought I had never sinned in my life. But after joining the madrassah, I realised that I had been drowning in a sea of sins.” At the age of 16, she learnt about the Muslims martyred in Kashmir and wanted to espouse their cause, and that’s how she joined the madrassah.

So, I continue, “Ok, let’s say I join the madrassah, but I don’t want to cover my face. Will I be accepted?” Many of them answer together. I am told that I will eventually cover my face. I’d learn to do it, and would eventually come to like it. Another student shares her story, “When I left school to join a madrassah, I asked my father to find me one where the wearing of a burqa was not compulsory. So I came here. I hated the burqa initially, and Umm-e-Hassan told me that I didn’t have to wear one, but I should, at least, attend classes. Within one week of classes, I went and bought a burqa for myself. I would look at my hands, my face, my hair and weep, thinking that all these parts of my body will burn in hell.”

From what I can tell, most of the girls (aged five and above) come from humble backgrounds, mostly from the north and the Punjab. I struggle to understand their belief structure, their set of values; I do not want to take refuge in the term “brainwash.” Jamia Hafsa is their home and all the girls are family, sharing a similar predicament. The madrassah has been under siege for some time now and is regarded as a dangerous place by the world outside. But the women within its four walls are at peace with themselves and find courage in their numbers. They would have continued to live quiet, mundane lives, away from the glare of publicity, but their actions over the past few days have made them the cynosure of all eyes — the whole country is talking about them. Why even female international journalists are flying down to interview them, with heads covered.

“Aren’t your families worried that you are living in this dangerous place which can come under fire any time?” I ask. I think they smile. What would I know when I don’t understand their passion, their resilience, the strength of their faith? Their families, I am told, support them fully and are praying for their security without emotionally weakening them. Many are willing to give up their daughters for jihad as their contribution in the path of Allah. I do not question the strength of their conviction.

But I follow this up with another question: “I get the feeling that to purge society of all its evils and to restore morality, you are even willing to be martyrs?”

“Inshallah!” comes the predictable and rehearsed response from all.