By Nadeem F. Paracha
A few days before this year’s Valentine’s Day, a couple of billboards began appearing in Karachi asking young people to say no to Valentine’s Day because it promoted obscenity and contradicted the teachings of Islam.
The anti-Valentine’s Day campaign is the brainchild of the cultural wing of an organisation called Tanzeem-e-Islami (TI).
An anti-Valentine’s Day billboard in Karachi put up by Tanzeem-e-Islami.
TI is a non-political Islamic organisation that was formed by Islamic scholar, Dr. Israr Ahmed, in 1957 when as a young member of the fundamentalist Jamat-i-Islami (JI) he resigned from the party after it had decided to take part in Pakistan’s mainstream politics.
The TI functioned as a conventional religious organisation sharing Dr. Israr’s commentaries on the Quran and Hadith with the few followers that it had gathered between 1957 and the late 1970s.
However, TI’s following began to grow after General Ziaul Haq pulled off a reactionary military coup in July 1977.
In 1981 the state-owned Pakistan television channel, the PTV, was asked by Ziaul Haq himself to give Dr. Israr a weekly show.
The show became one of the first in Pakistan in which an Islamic scholar would sit in front of an audience and deliver lectures on Islam.
The first season of the show mostly saw Dr. Israr delivering lectures on his understanding of the Quran, Hadith and the Shariah.
But, alas, as can be expected from most famous religious personalities (of any faith), Dr. Israr too began to add moral and political dimensions to what were once strictly academic religious proclamations.
Since Hijabs and Burqas were not all that common among middle-class women at the time, in 1982 Dr. Israr approached his show’s producers and exhibited his irritation at seeing ‘uncovered women’ in the audiences that were selected for his TV lectures.
What’s more his irritation in this respect also became the basis for Zia’s Ministry of Information to ask women newscasters, and actresses in TV plays to be ‘modestly dressed’, and with the least amount of make-up.
This was also the period when various women’s organisations were pouring out onto the streets of Lahore and Karachi to protest against what they thought were the Zia regime’s discriminatory and misogynistic policies and laws against women.
But just when these women were being baton-charged by the cops, women newscasters on TV began appearing with Dupattas on their heads and no make-up!
A woman newscaster reading the news on PTV in 1982. It was around this time that the government asked all women newscasters to cover their heads with Dupattas.
In TV plays women stopped being shown in western dresses or without a Dupatta. In fact, western dresses were only allowed to be worn by men and that too by those playing villainous roles.
The farce did not last long, but Dr. Israr was successful in getting his female audience wrap their Dupattas tightly over and across their heads.
In 1983, Dr. Israr began punctuating his lectures on Islam with his thoughts on what he believed were the need of the hour for Muslims around the world: A worldwide caliphate.
It is believed that Zia knew well about Dr. Israr’s ideas about the caliphate and gave permission to PTV to allow the scholar to relate his desire to see the enactment of a modern-day Islamic caliphate.
The idea was to Zia’s liking because it not only gave a kind of religious justification to a dictatorship supposedly based on the dictates of Islam; it also eschewed and undermined any call for restoring liberal democracy in Pakistan.
Emboldened by the fact that he was being given space and a countrywide audience to listen to his ideas about the caliphate, what Dr. Israr did next would put even the wily, Machiavellian Islamist like Zia in a quagmire of sorts.
After making his women audience to wrap their heads up with Dupattas (Hijabs were still a distant invention in Pakistan), he now wanted to see all women in Pakistan doing the same in public.
But since Zia’s Islamisation project was still relatively new, and Saudi and Iran funded Islamic outfits in Pakistan had yet to develop the kind of roots they did from the late 1980s onwards, the Zia regime could only play around with the convoluted idea of ‘female modesty’ on TV, and that too not without facing constant resistance.
A woman’s rally in Lahore protesting against the Zia dictatorship is baton-charged by the police (1980).
As mentioned earlier, women organisations were protesting against Zia’s laws on the streets but a time came when some women employees of PTV also refused to follow the moral dictates of the regime.
For example, after appearing for a few weeks without make-up, some women newscasters on PTV refused to read the then all-important propaganda package (the main 9’oclock news) called Khabarnama.
The news had begun to be read by two newscasters from 1980 onwards, a woman and a man.
After appearing on the screen without make-up for a few weeks, PTV’s leading women newscasters eventually refused to read the news.
For almost a week, the 9 o’clock news was presented by two men.
Embarrassed by the episode, Zia’s Information Ministry advised him to tone down the policy.
Zia did just that and the newscasters returned.
An Urdu newspaper quoted one of the women newscasters saying that they felt insulted by the policy because they were wise enough to understand what was right and what was wrong. She also went on to say that the government should not be interfering in women’s personal matters.
Mahtab Rashidi was a learned and good humoured Sindhi woman who used to host a popular show on PTV called ‘Aap Ki Baat,’ in which she used to read and answer letters written by PTV viewers about various programs offered by the channel.
By 1983 she was the only woman on PTV who was hosting a show without covering her head with a Dupatta.
The Information Ministry kept asking the producers of the show to request Ms. Rashidi to follow the Ministry’s new Dupatta-on-the-head policy, but to no avail.
Rashidi’s laid-back style of hosting and humour had bagged a huge fan following that also included some members of the Information Ministry!
Nevertheless, still angry for being made to retract its no make-up policy by the rebelling women newscasters, the Information Ministry finally decided to get a bit tough on Rashidi.
‘Who are they to tell me what is right and what is wrong?’ Rashdi was reported to have said about the Ministry. She said she was doing the show in normal, simple clothes and she was wearing the Dupatta exactly where it was supposed to be worn.
‘How will wearing the Dupatta over my head make me a better and more moralistic woman?’ She asked. ‘And why is this being dictated to me by men?’
Suggesting that the issue of women’s modesty was for the women to decide and not for finger-wagging males obsessed by how a woman should dress, she stormed out of the show.
She was not to appear on PTV until after the demise of the Zia dictatorship in 1988.
Zia had been happy in the knowledge that Dr. Israr’s lectures on faith and the Caliphate were working to his advantage and in a way giving scholarly and even divine justification to his rapidly unfolding Islamisation project and his political and legislative manoeuvres (undertaken to ‘Islamise Pakistan’s politics and society’).
But during a period (early 1980s) when the dictatorship was facing stiff resistance from leftist and progressive student groups on campuses, and on the streets by the PPP-led nine-party alliance, the MRD, and by various women’s organisations, he asked PTV to start giving extensive coverage to all series being played by the Pakistan Cricket team.
Under the captainship of the team’s new skipper, Imran Khan, the Pakistan team was performing extremely well and Zia wanted to use this to his advantage through PTV.
But shortly after Imran’s team had devastated the visiting Australian and Indian Test sides in late 1982 and early 1983, Dr. Israr was incensed when he heard a couple of young women in the audience of his weekly lecture on PTV talking about how Imran had taken 40 wickets in the 6-Test series against India (1983).
Once the audience settled down in the studio and TV cameras began rolling to record his lecture, he quickly talked through his usual meditations on the holy book and the Shariah, but then after pausing for a moment he diverged to announce that sports like cricket should be banned in Pakistan.
‘Cricket is making Pakistanis ignore their religious obligations,’ he said. The cameras kept on rolling.
‘I am convinced that cricket matches should not be shown on TV.’
The cameramen and the producer of the show were by now scratching their heads. What was Dr. Israr up to? The audience remained quiet.
He then added: ‘Even after the showing of matches on TV is banned, only men should be allowed to go to the stadium to watch these matches.’
This particular episode was not aired on PTV. In fact, Dr. Israr suddenly vanished from the mini-screen.
His fans began to phone in and ask PTV why Dr. Israr was not appearing on TV anymore.
PTV devised a convoluted response: ‘Dr. Israr is not well but he will return to do his show as soon as he regains his health.’
Some three weeks later the Urdu daily, Jang, broke the news that Dr. Israr was in good health and that it was what he had said during the recording of his weekly program that got him withdrawn from PTV.
Jang quoted Dr. Israr repeating his demand of getting the showing of cricket matches banned on TV and that only men should be allowed to go and watch matches at the stadiums.
However, this time he went a bit further: ‘Have you seen how cricket bowlers rub the ball when they are preparing to come into bowl?’
Dr. Israr said the bowlers ‘suggestively rub the ball’ on the flashy parts of their body (the backside) and across their groins. He specifically signalled out Imran Khan.
‘Our mothers, sisters and wives watch all this on TV and in the stadiums,’ Dr. Israr complained.
He was of the view that a player like Imran Khan (who was considered to be a sex symbol and a ‘playboy’ around the cricketing world at the time), does the groin-rubbing routine in the most obscene manner and (thus) ‘corrupts the minds of young Pakistani women.’
Imran Khan bowling in the nets watched by Wasim Raja (1981). Dr. Israr accused him of rubbing the cricket ball across his groin ‘in the most suggestive manner’ and ‘corrupting young women.’
He then went on to call upon the Zia regime to ban showing cricket matches on TV and the entry of women at cricket stadiums.
As mentioned, Zia’s Islamisation project and the proliferation of Islamic evangelical organisations in Pakistan in the early 1980s were still a relatively new and rootless phenomenon.
At the same time Zia was facing a number of political and ideological challenges and resistance from large sections of the population, especially due to the many controversial ‘Islamic laws’ he was planning to unfold.
Such challenges were being thrown up not only by secular political parties but also by organisations looking after the interests of the Shia Muslim sect and the then largely moderate Barelvi Sunni sect, both of whom had become alarmed by the way Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich gulf monarchies had begun to establish mosques and seminaries.
Zia did not respond to Dr. Israr’s demands. But being an admirer of the volatile Islamic scholar, he advised his Information Ministry to ask Dr. Israr to continue doing his TV program, but stick to talking about Shariah and the Caliphate and leave the cricket commentary to famous cricket experts and commentators of the time, such as Iftikhar Ahmed, Chisty Mujahid, Omar Kureshi and Muneer Hussain.
So it wasn’t that PTV chucked out Dr. Israr. Dr. Israr huffed and puffed his way out himself.
He had insisted that his talk on how cricket was corrupting women be allowed to air on TV.
But when PTV chopped that portion of his lecture out, he refused to do the show anymore.
Dr. Israr would only rarely appear on TV after this. But he had already bagged a sizable following that grew even more when Zia’s Islamisation project finally began to kick-in from the late 1980s onwards and especially after the mid-1990s when a number of Islamic evangelical organisations emerged and successfully competed to bag large urban middle-class followers.
In the late 1990s during the rapid proliferation of conservative evangelical outfits in Pakistan that were all supplementing the growing interest in religious rituals and thought among the urban middle-classes, TI began to evolve a cultural wing of sorts as well.
Also, and just like many other Islamic evangelical organisations in the country, TI’s ‘cultural’ initiatives have squarely focused on issues of morality, or rather female morality.
The liberal sections of the media and population have often criticised many of these organisations of navel-gazing about trivial issues, and spending millions of Rupees on largely imagined and inconsequential moral issues in a country being haunted by religious extremism, sectarian violence, terrorism, rising rates of crime and unemployment, misgovernment and corruption.
I managed to place a call to one ex-member of the TI and two current members (all males).
The ex was of the view that those using TI’s name to run campaigns against things like Valentine’s Day and are against ads for women’s designer lawns were trivialising Dr. Israr’s work and image.
Interestingly, one current member claimed that TI had nothing to do with the recent anti-Valentine’s Day campaign; while the other member said that such campaigns were ‘an extension of Dr. Israr’s larger philosophy and teachings.’
I asked him, how come the TI doesn’t run campaigns asking people to say no to terrorism and extremism as well?
‘We are not a political organisation,’ was his answer.
After I reminded him that Dr. Israr’s ideas on the creation of an international Caliphate that (he believed) would emerge in Pakistan was a political statement and idea, he said Dr. Israr’s politics had nothing to do with the kind of politics that takes place in Pakistan.
My parting question to the gentleman was: ‘Do you think running anti-Valentine’s campaigns are a precursor to the emergence of an international Islamic Caliphate?’
I didn’t get an answer.
Many of Dr. Israr’s detractors have blamed him for trivialising his own work and image.
They believe that unlike Islamic scholars like Javed Ghamdi or Islamic thinkers like Muhammad Iqbal, Dr. Israr, in spite of being a highly learned man, couldn’t control his ‘mullah instincts.’
Some women organisations accused him of being a misogynist. One member of such an organisation told me: ‘I laugh whenever I see these nice, white and polite billboards asking people to say no to Valentine’s Day. I laugh because they are being financed and put up by an organisation that was formed by Dr. Israr.’
She then related a curiously shocking incident (about which columnist and blogger Tazeen Hussain has also written).
In 2006 (during the Musharraf dictatorship), the government held a large ‘mixed marathon’ in Lahore that was open to both men and women.
The Mutahidda Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), the alliance of a right-wing religious parties responded to the ‘threat’ by holding rallies against the marathon.
One of these rallies took place outside the Karachi Press Club.
The rally was also joined by Dr. Israr and some of his supporters.
Leaders of the MMA. The right-wing religious alliance that withered away just before the 2008 election.
One of journalists covering the rally was a young woman with a camera and in a sleeveless top. She tried to approach Dr. Israr for a comment but he refused to talk to her.
She persisted and he finally turned his attention to the young journalist. But not before telling a colleague of his: ‘Dekho! West nein iss haramzadi* ka huliya hi badal diya hai!’ (Look! The west has totally changed the look of this obnoxious woman!’
(*Haramzadi also means a woman born out of wedlock).
So yes, do say no to Valentine’s Day. Otherwise you know what you are.
Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com