4 October 2011
The burqa, a garment which needs no introduction has been a bone to chew on for many. After the infamous burqa ban, France shunned the idea of Muslims praying on her streets in April. France is home to Europe’s largest Muslim population, but the idea is obviously to bring back ‘French-ness’ to its cities. On Thursday, France first fined two veiled women ‘guilty’ of covering up. Netherlands is also now set to follow suit in proposing a ban on the burqa.
In Bollywood, all hell broke loose recently when a scriptwriter incorporated the burqa for a female character to wear by choice. Consequently, the studio executive responded, “You have to understand – you can’t just show people wearing a burqa in Bollywood movies by choice. Either you have to be a conservative woman who wants to blow up all of United States and who doesn’t let her children go to school or you have to use it in a situation where the lead actor gets stuck in a jam and needs to escape without being seen by anyone.” To this, scriptwriter Indra Kumar said, “Look I believe in realism in scripts. Now this woman thought the burqa was a tool of empowerment so I wrote it. There are many such women in the world.”
Pakistani comedian Saad Haroon’s attempt at making Pakistanis laugh is Burqa Woman, a parody of Roy Orbison’s Pretty Woman, already reaching nearly 200,000 hits on Youtube as he sings, “Burqa woman, I love you still…come on and give me a thrill…show me your left nostril.” The video features a young man wooing a burqa-clad woman, coaxing her with words, “my desi penguin” and continuing that he will “go home and practice with his living room curtain.” It appears as if the comedian put some deep thought into the idea. Consider: The Persian word ‘Purdah’ as we know it well means ‘curtain’.
When I first saw the video, I couldn’t help being in awe of Haroon’s bold sense of creative genius and attempt at loosening the noose around the globally-debated burqa, but what about the hundreds and thousands of Muslim women who have taken serious offense to the comedian’s laughing gas? Statistics show that the burgeoning popularity of the burqa has increased from 10 to 30 per cent in the Indian state Kerala and the burqa has become a fashion statement in Bhopal.
Britain’s Immigration Minister Damian Green has stated that the British government should not seek to ban the burqa for a “tolerant and mutually respectful society,” a Spanish court has recently suspended the burqa ban and finally, Amsterdam’s Chief of Police Bernard Welson announced that if the burqa ban would be enforced, he would practice civil disobedience.
According to a new research conducted by the Pew Research Center, Pakistan will overtake Indonesia as the world’s most populous Muslim state and the number of Muslims in the United States will double from 2.6 million in 2010 to 6.2 million by 2030.
Giving all due respect to Burqa Woman’s legitimate cause of making Pakistanis laugh and offering comic relief in the face of assassinations, natural disasters, routine bombings, lynching, rising corruption, incompetent governance and skyrocketing poverty and unemployment among a myriad of other problems, I sense that Saad Haroon’s cultural and social insensitivity towards the burqa is very obvious here.
I don’t wear it – or even propagate the burqa culture within my surroundings, but I worry how brass humor can possibly offend those Muslim women who do. Having said that, the question of freedom of expression brings us at a crossroads as the Pakistani constitution clearly encourages a sense of restriction as far as religious sensitivities are concerned.
With Burqa Woman, Saad Haroon has chosen to tread on thin ice especially considering that recent developments including the fight against blasphemy laws have cost us Pakistanis a heavy price. Critics will argue that freedom of speech is essential for any democracy, but I say that shared responsibility must be ensued with this freedom. As media gurus, comedians, writers, producers and directors, are we fully aware of our rights to offend – or the limits of free speech?
Based on similar notions, Ajoka Theatre’s humorous play Burqavaganza topped the charts, and writer Shahid Nadeem happened to say that Pakistanis dwell too much on the burqa, wasting a large proportion of their time on this. I am not sorry to burst anyone’s bubble here, but I felt that the play was forced humour with no real food for thought.
As Pakistani audiences – are we tolerant enough and geared to absorb satirical humor and learn to take it in stride? My belief remains affirmed when I say that as progressive Pakistanis if we have the ability to enjoy satirical mockery of the burqa, we must also be prepared to exercise similar endurance towards thousands of women who choose to still wear the burqa across the globe.
We must also understand that while categorical humor is the most important vehicle to positively address tolerance, there is no way we can turn a blind eye to how these works can leave many burqa-clad women with a low blow.
The writer is a Lahore-based journalist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org