“Women in public life are judged on what they wear rather than what they do.”
The runup to International Women’s Day in Pakistan has been marked by a heated national debate: not about the sorry state of women’s status in the country, but about the witty and audacious slogans raised in connection with Sunday’s Aurat March.
The absurdity of the debate about Aurat March is characterised by the terrible misogyny it reveals in terms of women’s choices, particularly in relation to their bodies and their appearance. And here it is pertinent to take a step back and recognise just how deeply ingrained preconceptions about women’s appearance and sartorial choices are in Pakistan — and how, to some extent, all of us are guilty of this.
For me, the most telling thing is the different way in which male and female politicians are regarded and judged and the very different standards to which they are held.
Most young people will not remember this, but not so long ago, the Sharif brothers sported gleaming pates. Then over a decade ago, they had whatever work is required done and then they sprouted hair on the top of their heads. Nobody really commented on this even though it was essentially a vanity undertaking.
I wrote about this on my blog on BBC Urdu, pointing out the complete double standards at play: Benazir Bhutto’s appearance had been routinely criticised and her clothes, shoes, gait, hairdo and makeup were something that nearly everybody in Pakistan — men or women — would hold forth upon. My blog which was titled ‘Naye Baal, Nayee Zindagi‘ pointed this out but much of the feedback it generated had an outraged tone telling me how dare I “criticise” these wonderful men — even though all I was doing was pointing out the double standards.
“Nearly every woman politician in Pakistan is careful to cover her head in public and to look modest, yet the Vawdas and Khans in the political arena will wear tight jeans and designer garb or any other less-than-occasion-appropriate attire yet arouse no comment and suffer no public backlash at all.”
Bhutto was the first woman elected Muslim prime minister in the world and she achieved this at the very young age of 35. Yet, most of the public discourse around her was less about her policies or her politics and more about her clothes or her looks. People discussed, ad infinitum, the possibility that she might have had plastic surgery as if it was a matter of grave national importance. There was endless holding forth upon this by armchair experts who insisted, authoritatively, that her face looked different than in her early photos. Implicit in all of this commentary was the idea that Bhutto was somehow a terrible, vain and wealthy person if she had had any “work” done.
Yet, when the Sharifs got new hair, nobody even batted an eyelid.
Now fast forward to the present day where botox and hair regrowth procedures are becoming more and more common in Pakistan. Notice how little comment there is when a male politician or TV personality appears with a suddenly creaseless forehead or with jet black hair. No surprise, no comment, no embarrassment.
The prime minister, Imran Khan, had a small bald patch about 14 years ago, but now he periodically appears with slightly thicker hair and nobody seems to comment on it or on any small changes to his face. I’m not saying that we need to comment on people’s appearance or their choices about that appearance, I’m just pointing out that the prevalent view is that men can do what they want but women’s appearance or clothes are considered something that everybody simply MUST criticise.
These attitudes are, of course, linked up with a primitive social view that “honour” reposes in the body of the woman and she is a possession that might be “stolen” or “lost”. As a possession, she must be controlled by a man because there is a perception that if she is “free”, society will collapse and “immorality” or “fahashi” will prevail.
Nearly every woman politician in Pakistan is careful to cover her head in public and to look modest, yet the Vawdas and Khans in the political arena will wear tight jeans and designer garb or any other less-than-occasion-appropriate attire yet arouse no comment and suffer no public backlash at all. Educational institutions will have a very strict dress code and rules for females, but be lenient with the males. It is always the women who have to be conscious of what they wear, how they walk or who they speak to.
Times are changing, but there still is a long way to go because the people who are guilty of this sort of double standards are not just the chauvinists or the religious right — it is nearly everyone. These attitudes are now normalised and are so ingrained in our society that even educated, reasonable people — both men and women – are guilty of such behaviour. But the more aware of these double standards we can become, the more we will be able to overcome them.