"Misguided women"

Disparaging terms for burqa-clad women used to be a joke - but not after female students began a cam

The ninjas. The burqa brigade. The women in black. For some years now I've been hearing such terms thrown around with disdain by "burqa-unfriendly" sections of Pakistani society to describe the women who swathe themselves entirely in black. The terms are disparaging, but until recently they were a joke, not invested with the property of fear invoked by the ninjas' male counterparts: the beards, the fundos, the jihadis. In the past few weeks, all that has changed.

The first sign of trouble occurred in January when the female students of Islamabad's Jamia Hafsa madrasa occupied a children's library to protest against the demolition of 80 mosques encroaching on public land. Rather than resorting to its usual brute-force tactics, the government sent in the minister for religious affairs to promise that those mosques already demolished would be rebuilt. Many voices started grumbling about the government's inability to stand up to "a group of girls". But it didn't take much to imagine the PR fallout for Musharraf's government if he sent in baton-wielding police officers after a group of teenaged girls objecting to the razing of mosques in a country where illegal buildings are hardly out of the ordinary.

Then, in March, dozens of girls from Jamia Hafsa kidnapped three women and a baby from a house they claimed was a brothel. Next they kidnapped two policemen. Newspaper front pages were splashed with pictures of the ninjas chasing away plain-clothes policemen while wielding long sticks. They have also taken to patrolling the bazaars, threatening the owners of DVD and CD stores, which they claim spread pornography and vice. Every few days the papers now carry pictures of DVD bonfires.

The girls of Jamia Hafsa have their male counterparts at the adjoining Jamia Fareedia madrasa for men. But "Jamia Fareedia" has not entered Pakistan's vocabulary in the way "Jamia Hafsa" has, and the part that the male students play in their campaign of "virtue" has gone compa ratively unremarked on, though they, too, were present at the kidnappings and are part of the intimidation of video store owners. In fact, the femaleness of the female students seems to be causing almost as much consternation as the decision by the brothers who run the two madrasas to impose a parallel sharia system of justice within their premises and their warnings of suicide attacks if the government doesn't also impose sharia law.

The gendered nature of the commentary about the Jamia Hafsa students cuts across many sections of society - from the radio DJ who, tongue firmly in cheek, declared the theme of his show "girl power - in honour of the ladies of Jamia Hafsa", to the highly respected journalist deploying the phrase "chicks with sticks", to the head of Jamaat-ud-Dawa (the offshoot of the banned militant party Lashkar-e-Toiba) opposing the students' actions on the grounds that it is un-Islamic for women to take a leadership position, to General Musharraf dismissing the vigilantes as "misguided women" - which seems to suggest that they wouldn't or couldn't behave as they were doing if not for someone else (presumably male) guiding their actions. Musharraf has also used gender as an excuse for not taking action against their flagrant violations of the law. "We respect women," he intoned with great sincerity, put ting aside the fact that women are being harassed and kidnapped by the JH students.

Repent and be forgiven

If Pakistan's outspoken feminists are not rising up in objection to the sexist subtext of all these comments it is because they're far more concerned with the threat that the JH students pose to other women. They have already announced that they know of 30 other "brothels" in Islamabad that they're going to raid, though the male head of the madrasa has generously added that any prostitute who turns herself in and repents will be forgiven (he will set the example of forgiveness by marrying one of them). Not content with threatening alleged prostitutes, the JH students have also declared a fatwa against Pakistan's tourism minister after she was shown on television paragliding and then hugging her French coach. Both actions are deemed to be un-Islamic.

It's easy to think of the paragliding minister and the burqa-clad militant as opposite poles of Pakistan's complex pictures of womanhood. Newspapers have taken to juxtaposing "oppositional" photographs in support of this thesis: a tracksuit-wearing female athlete with a javelin beside stick-wielding women in black; a bare-headed, short-sleeved female protester holding up a sign saying "No to Extremism, Yes to Music" taking the front-page space given the previous day to more stick-wielding women in black (the photographs of the JH students are taken from different angles, in different places, but are ultimately always the same photograph). The more complicated truth is that the real opposites are the women who appear on the front pages and those who don't appear anywhere at all, except in a small column tucked away inside, detailing a story of a woman raped, a woman killed for "honour", a woman stoned alive.

"Obscured" women in Pakistan are a meta phor to a greater extent than they are a literal presence. (Sometimes, as in the case of the JH students, when they are literally obscured, they are also front and centre of the nation's view.) Though Pakistan's women are, in temperament, probably more powerful than its men, they are also almost entirely absent from the structures of power - and on the rare occasions when they do enter those structures, it is often as some man's wife or daughter. Small wonder, then, that when they enter the public sphere with any gesture of defiance - be it progressive or regressive - their femaleness attracts particular attention. Women should stay tucked away in the local news section of newspapers, is the implicit message of all this gendered scru tinising; to behave otherwise is simply not appropriate.

Kamila Shamsie's most recent novel is "Broken Verses" (Bloomsbury, £7.99)

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