December Issue 2003

By | Society | Published 21 years ago

Sex, drugs and raves — horses for courses of the bold and the beautiful, but in the eyes of 25-year old ex-grammarian Amna, “unmitigated fahashi, and one of the signs of the day of judgment.”

Amna is one of several young girls reading towards a degree in Islamic sciences moderated by scholar Dr Farhat Hashmi.

Every day, scores of girls like Amna, draped top to toe in headscarves and jalbabs, make their way past that mecca of consumerism, Clifton’s Gulf Centre, and climb the white stairway to Al-Huda (the guidance) Institute of Islamic Education for Women. The institute, which has gained widespread recognition over the years, offers a variety of courses, ranging from the one-year intensive degree in Quranic translation to daily lectures, drawing 10,000 women from all over the city. And a large percentage of the pupils are young women.

Whereas the Hashmi phenomenon, as dubbed by the vernacular and foreign press, has largely been trashed as toffee for coffee party aunties bored rigid of the somewhat staid social circuit, this infusion of new blood has received scarce mention. As Hashmi’s opponents among mainstream mullahs continue to propagate fiery, often misogynistic, brands of Islam, ‘the madam’s’ soft-spoken sermons have captured the hearts and minds of the daughters of the elite — breaking barriers of age and creed, if not class or sex, at home and abroad.

Unlike the majority of their schoolmates, choosing to revel in a lifestyle of excess culled from the west, these girls have chosen to walk the path less travelled, moving to the beat of their own — Islamically sanctioned — drum. Take 15-year-old Sara, for instance, a French national, who was sent to study Islam at the institute. “My parents are very religious,” she says. “So am I.” Sara lives with numerous other girls in a house cum hostel donated to the institute by a well-to-do student’s family. Many of them are from other cities in Pakistan, even from overseas. Due to the institute’s popularity, living conditions are cramped and many girls have to sleep on makeshift mattresses on the floor. “Once there was an outbreak of termites and some of the beds had bedbugs, but we were not deterred,” says Sara. “It’s a small price to pay for the spiritual riches we have earned.”

Then there is Zainab, who went along to listen to one of Hashmi’s open sermons with her two sisters and mother. “I loved what she was saying,” she recalls. “Uptil then my knowledge of Islam was extremely deficient — I didn’t even know most of my kalmas. I signed up for the year’s course, which was really cheap, and started to learn about my religion. Everything Madam said made so much sense. I now wear a hijab, as do my sisters. At first it was difficult, as I was the only kid in my class who wore one. Now, however, there are quite a few of us. I also used to be into music, but now get really agitated if I hear it in public places. I just get up and leave because it is my responsibility to set a good example.”

Sara’s neighbor, 16-year old Alizay, admits she “always found reading the Quran or listening to the ustani (religious teacher) very boring. But then I broke up with my boyfriend, and happened to listen to one of my mother’s Al-Huda tapes. Dr Hashmi relates the Quran to everyday experiences. I realised that my way of life was wrong. So I joined up to learn more about my culture and deen.”

The new generation’s quest, like that of their mothers, is to identify with Islam, and often stems from a deep sense of disillusionment and dissatisfaction with their lives. It’s a premise supported by Hashmi herself, who believes that the desire for religious enlightenment has its roots in a sense of despair. “There is a search for direction, for guidance,” she says. “They come to me for answers. They leave with a sense of peace felt by reading the Quran.”

Twenty-seven-year-old Hira agrees. “My friends are out partying, drinking, doping, socialising,” she says. Things at schools are going from bad to worse — when I was in lower school, it was almost scandalous to kiss a boy you were going out with. In contrast, my younger sisters tell me stories that are simply shocking: girls as young as nine are getting physical, drinking and smoking. One of them even asked me if I knew what ‘E’ was, and if I could get some. I don’t want my sisters to think anything goes. I want them to learn about their religion and how to live a good life, according to the example set by the prophet (pbuh) and his wives. That’s why I make my own children attend Little Momins (believers) — a religious school for the young.”

Despite the fact that Al-Huda has brought those considered, in the words of a BBC report, “the last bastion of skeptics, the educated female elite,” back to the basics, or fundamentals, of Islam, its students have their share of critics. Even within religious circles, there are those who ardently believe that the only outward manifestation of Hashmi’s spiritual teachings has been the cloistering of women behind the veil. Some have gone as far as to dub her the face of a female Taliban. “Why does she (Hashmi) wear a veil which covers everything but her eyes?” questions one. “It is not an Islamic requirement, but a code of dress appointed only for The Prophet’s wives.” Another concurs. “Farhat Hashmi is a role model,” she says. “Girls who are practicing Muslims, but don’t wear the veil will, as a consequence, be considered deficient in their religion. Has she accompanied this example with an appeal to women to actively involve themselves in the society as equal participants?” she asks.

It is a criticism supported by, amongst others, liberal scholar Riffat Hasan. “Anyone who talks about Islam without talking about social justice has not got the message,” she says. “She (Hashmi) is putting a softer hue… it’s like an opiate. You go there, you feel good, you feel you have pleased God. I think women in this society, regardless of class, are so oppressed that they need some support system, some outlet, and what better if that comes in the form of religion? What happens here at a dars (religious discussion) is not even an exchange of ideas, it is almost a form of brainwashing.”

While most agree that Pakistan needs educated young women, confident of protecting their dignity without abdicating from visible participation in nation building activities, Al-Huda talibas (pupils) are instructed to make their home their primary responsibility. And while the institute does hold evening classes especially for the working woman, Hashmi and her instructors believe that the female’s role as home-maker should not be sacrificed at the altar of ambition. But although Hashmi has been called a ‘kafir’ for not propagating jihad — “I teach women; are they going to go and fight? Any way there are many things that need to be done, before thinking of jihad” — she does not discourage active societal participation.

So has this brand of awareness brought about any real results or just a breed of judgmental and self-righteous women? Are its disciples blindly circumambulating around a new age heroine — flying high on their newfound opium? Speaking volumes for the underlying motives of the students is Hashmi’s own admission that most cannot rise beyond trivial issues such as the acceptability of nail polish or waxing. “The young women who attend my classes are still bound by a life-time of religious knowledge that has been based on trivia and to correct that will take time. It is sad, and I myself have been amazed that I am asked these questions after class,” she says. “Is this all they have gleaned or understood?” Despite the great pains taken to cover their zeenat (beauty), it is also not unusual for many students to dress in the latest designer fashions, or to sport expensive jewellery (under the jalbab of course) all but negating the notion of Islamic simplicity.

Horror stories meanwhile, abound. Hushed whispers of broken engagements — even marriages — as a result of disputes over wearing hijab are common. “One of my friends was divorced by her husband because he could not adapt to her new lifestyle,” says 22-year-old Zohra. “My friend wanted to wear the niqaab (veil), and refused to attend mixed gatherings, but her husband couldn’t accept that. He asked her to revert back to who she was, but she refused. I have also heard of a lot of engagements breaking up for the same reasons.”

But as a centre where young, pious girls congregate, the seventh floor of Gulf Centre has proved to be the seventh heaven for marriage makers. Says a mother, “I believe it’s a good thing because you can be sure of getting a ‘good’ respectful bahu. It’s very difficult to be sure of a girl’s character these days.” Her friend, a former socialite, is keen to have a gossip. “Just recently, one of the teachers at the institute arranged the marriage of her son to a 16-year-old girl from Grammar School, whose family is a regular here,” she says. “Her elder sister also got married through the institute. As it is permissable to unveil yourself before a man who is considering you for marriage, she allowed him to look at her just once, in the presence of both families, before the wedding.”

The couple — like the swelling ranks of religious reactionaries — are strictly orthodox. No photographs were taken at the wedding, and both believe figures, even cartoon characters, to be haraam (unlawful). There have also been cases where barbies — even dolls — have been taken away from kids by their young mothers, who are eager to inculcate good ‘Islamic’ ethics in their children.

In the words of a comic, “In this generation, the popular religion is confusionism. God wants spiritual fruit, not religious nuts.” But in this search for the self, the lines between the old and the new, the progressive and the traditional, seem more blurred than ever.