We talk about morality and immorality often, perhaps far too often. Entire newspaper columns have been devoted to the issue and on social media any picture or comment, especially those which depict girls or women acting in some way outside their traditional role, draws a flurry of comments – some abusive, some blaming the ‘West’ for what has apparently been done to the female gender in our country.
We have all seen such comments. They filled line after line following the Aurat March of March 8, 2019. They also followed after the rally staged by students in cities around the country in November the same year with girls in jeans or those moving to music deemed an example of the lows the country had fallen to.
At social gatherings, the issue of morality, and especially that of women, is a commonly discussed issue. Even those who claim to be ‘liberal’ draw the line at certain points when it comes to the behaviour of women. For many years before she passed away in February 2018, there had been attempts to ‘prove’ that Asma Jehangir was an ‘immoral’ woman by publishing photographs of her smoking one of the cigarettes she always carried with her or shaking hands with a man. Yet men smoking cigarettes, hazardous as it may be to their health, do not bring up questions of morality or thoughts about their actions. This is rooted deeply in our culture. Male public figures engaging in precisely similar behaviours draw not even the slightest raise of an eyebrow.
The exposure by TikTok star Hareem Shah and her friend Sundal Khattak, two young women from Khyber Pukhtunkhwa whose hugely popular videos have exposed the behaviour and morality of men who sit in high places in our country is one of the reasons why the girls are being vilified and facing threats. Both girls have reportedly left the country. Hareem’s TikTok videos have in fact been banned and the young woman condemned. The matter has even been debated in parliament.
Rather than directing threats against Hareem, we should be examining those who sit at the very top echelons of power in the country. There is also the sociological phenomenon involved behind the emergence of young women like Hareem Shah, Sundal Khattak and before them Qandeel Baloch. Qandeel’s murder at the hands of her own brother brought out a whole plethora of rumours and hints about facts which remain under cover.
In the case of Hareem Shah, people ask how she was able to enter the heavily guarded Foreign Office conference room where she shot a TikTok video, sitting in a chair and posting a cheeky caption stating ‘Hareem Shah Prime Minister’. The humour of the girls draws smiles. But in a society such as ours, why do they choose to act in a fashion that will inevitably be disapproved of?
Hareem Shah’s father, a government servant working at the lower level of the government tiers in Islamabad, says he is shocked by his daughter’s behaviour and had in fact sent her to a prestigious religious academy to make her an expert on the affairs of religion. He calls her an ‘aalima’. Hareem is believed to hold an MPhil degree in Comparative Religions. Even more fascinatingly, Sundal Khattak says she has the support of her impoverished family, from one of the most conservative provinces in the country, and that her videos are supported by them. This is possibly even more unusual.
We also question from where the girls have acquired the money that supports a lifestyle involving plane rides and expensive hotels. There are insinuations that powerful forces are behind them, and the purpose is to damage the government. This however does not explain why ministers, from whom we expect more dignified and mature behaviour, would engage in obviously unsuitable discussions. The answer of course lies in their inability to resist pretty young women and their own beliefs about morality and immorality.
If a woman is deemed ‘immoral’, she falls into a category which apparently gives men open licence to behave as they choose with her. Qandeel had experienced this, but converted it in her videos into her quirky humour and lured in well-known public figures including Mufti Qavi in a video that perhaps gave her the greatest prominence. Did it contribute to her death? We may never know.
The entire phenomenon though is a fascinating one. It exposes men in our society and the fact that they have not been called out on social media for their actions or words. Hareem Shah claims she has many other videos to bring men who hold power down. She says she has chosen not to share them for now.
Where this blackmail will lead is only one question. The more significant one involves the role of social media in empowering young women to behave in ways we would not expect. Their courage, humour and ability to so quickly trap people who should know better is quite extraordinary.
We need to rethink morality and immorality in our country. There is a completely different scale based around gender and also around class. This has increasingly shaped our society and continues to do so in an age when the social media is accessible to a larger number with each passing day. The Hareem Shah affair has drawn plenty of attention. Has it drawn sufficient thought?
We need to consider the question carefully and look at the people holding positions as public representatives whom she has apparently exposed, leaving us wondering what their calibre is and if they should have the right to make important decisions for all of us as people and as citizens.
This is far more significant than the matter of Hareem or Sundal’s ‘characters’, the methodology they chose to leave behind mundane lifestyles which would never have allowed them the luxuries they have recently enjoyed or the reaction of people to their videos.
The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.