It appears that the government is finally moving to pass a long-delayed bill concerning the criminality of honor killings; with a fresh sense of political urgency no doubt spurred by the murder of social media starlet, Qandeel Baloch.
Many respectable citizens have asked out loud how “being nude” could possibly catalyze the movement for women’s rights; or how the alleged “vulgarity” of women like Ms. Baloch could ever serve as an instrument for meaningful social or political change. Let this bill be half an answer to your question. Clearly, as a liberal feminist, I have my work cut out for me. But those dismissing this wind of change as mere coincidence, having nothing to do with Qandeel Baloch’s risqué videos, allow me to elaborate.
In 1955, Rosa Parks – now regarded as “the first lady of civil rights” – refused to given up her seat to a white man after being ordered by the bus driver to do so. Many people back then (and quite a few even today) may have wondered what the hullabaloo was about. What sort of a revolution was Parks hoping to stage with a simple act of refusing to vacate her seat in a bus? And what statement was this attention-seeing upstart making anyway? That “colored people” don’t have a place to sit? That it’s necessary for black people to be ‘seated’ in order to attain their civil liberties? That black people must always refuse to be courteous towards white people?
Qandeel Baloch has faced similar criticism from her opponents. What sort of a ‘revolution’ is she hoping to stage by wearing shorter clothing? What statement is this attention-seeking harpy attempting to make? That women have to be “naked” in order to win their rights?
It depends on the context. This is a country, we’ve learned, where non-adherence to pardah may earn you rape threats from random people on the internet, and even get you killed in real life. You cannot ‘choose’ to cover up in a country where covering up is mandated under the threat of social ruin and even physical harm; you may only ‘submit’ to the demands of the society.
And in some sense, that’s a bit like Montgomery, Alabama: where black people couldn’t ‘choose’ to be courteous towards white people; they had to submit to their every whim, or face ruin.
An ‘inqilab’ can appear in many forms. A simple act of defying the social establishment by taking charge of your own body, and your own lifestyle, may well be revolutionary.
Such ‘activism’ may be dated back to the 13th century, when Lady Godiva rode on a horse, completely naked, through the streets of Coventry, in protest of the crushing taxes imposed by her own husband on his tenants. There are numerous interpretations of the event, and it has been mythologized to a vast degree. But from what it generally appears, it wasn’t attention-seeking behavior or the thrill of nudity that led Lady Godiva to ride naked. It was an act of defying the establishment’s expectation of how people must or must not behave.
More recently, a feminist campaign called ‘SlutWalk’ has emerged in response to rape-apologia suggesting that women who dress ‘provocatively’, invite rape upon themselves. The sheer perversity of this victim-blaming culture gave rise to a radical social political movement, featuring minimally-dressed women activists parading the streets with signs announcing, “Still not asking for it!”.
Other popular movements fighting back against slut-shaming practices and sexist attitudes include ‘Free the Nipple’ movement; and Femen, which supposedly exploits the public’s obsession with female nudity to draw attention to matters of grave political importance.
The East has often resisted patriarchy in the same way. Zia’s coup and the subsequent anti-women policies enacted by this government, were met with dupatta-burning women in the streets of Lahore and other major cities. In Iran, a campaign called ‘My Stealthy Freedom’ is gaining momentum, and involves Iranian women sharing their pictures online without their headscarves.
None of this is a conspiracy to normalize nudity; and indeed, feminists have their own set of concerns about the sexual objectification of the female body. This brand of activism must be assessed in its correct context; in a place where pardah is ‘imposed’, rather than simply allowed.
To the conservative-minded, a woman’s right to bare her skin may not seem like an important milestone in the struggle for civil liberties. But it is, nevertheless, part of a larger set of rights allowing women unconditional command of their own bodies. It’s about a vast field of freedoms that extend all the way from the right to wear a niqab, to the right to wear a bikini; encompassing everything in between the two.
The virtues and vices of each of these decisions may be discussed, but a woman’s autonomy over her own body must be accepted as inalienable. Nothing may be forced upon her body, and nothing may be forced off.