The enlightenment of Waris Mir: Part – III – Dr Naazir Mahmood

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In the first two columns of this series appearing in these pages on September 21 and 23, we started a discussion on Waris Mir (1938 – 1987) and his columns in Urdu that dealt with attempts to reform Muslim societies with a special reference to Arab societies. We talked about rationalist thinkers, from al-Farabi and Ibn Sina to Ibn Khaldun and Ibn Tufail.

One of his books is titled ‘Kiya aurat aadhi hai?’ (Is woman just half a person?). It carries his articles in response to the brutal crackdown of General Zia’s regime on women protesting against anti-women laws. Some concerned and conscientious women were holding demonstrations across Pakistan led by Women’s Action Forum (WAF). On February 12, 1983, some women in Lahore organized a peaceful rally that the police attacked under the directions of the martial law authorities who were not ready to brook any criticism of General Zia’s dictatorship and its anti-democratic and anti-people actions.

The military authorities in complete and unrestrained power since the 1977 coup d’etat were targeting all democratic forces in the country, and women were no exception. On that fateful and unfortunate day in Pakistan’s history, martial law authorities ordered ruthless baton charge and teargas on a peaceful rally of women demanding equal rights. A major bone of contention was the law that declared woman as half a person – meaning in the eyes of the law two women’s testimony would be equal to one man’s testimony in court; can you believe that?

Dozens of women sustained injuries and in a wounded condition were arrested and thrown into police vans. Waris Mir was deeply distressed at the treatment meted out to the brave women who dared to take a stand against the discriminatory Law of Evidence that General Zia’s regime attempted to promulgate. Waris Mir paid tribute to that wave of the women’s movement which has not retreated since. Waris Mir was an eyewitness to that historic challenge to the dictatorial regime and discriminatory state. The powerful images captured that day moved Waris Mir so much that he decided to defend women with his pen.

The authorities banned him from the PTV consultative committee, removed him from the Film Censor Board, and relieved him of his responsibilities as chairman of journalism department at Punjab University. But all that intensified his resolve to expose the bigotry of the junta through his columns. He started a long series of columns in daily ‘Jang’ with the title ‘Kiya aurat aadhi hai’? He used references from Islamic teachings, scriptures, and traditions to prove his point that women were equal to men. He wrote with arguments evolving from rigorous research.

Here we use the second edition of his book published in 1989, with introduction and preface by Afzal Tauseef and Fehmida Riaz. Both Afzal and Fehmida were women of outstanding merit in their own right standing tall among columnists, journalists, and writers who criticized and stood against authoritarianism and dictatorships in this country. In her preface to Waris Mir’s book, Afzal Tauseef writes:

“Waris Mir’s personality had become a movement in itself; even before his death he had assumed the status of a legend. He was persistently waging a war by uttering the word of truth before the repressive ruler. He was with the fighters, supporting the suppressed, and standing by them; but on many fronts he was struggling on his own. His life was in danger, his children were not safe; there were many attackers, multiple battles, but he fought on all fronts. He still had much power in his pen and his heart was aglow with the flame of truth. But then – as it happens – he was killed suddenly; then and there, with his boots on, at the front, holding his pen tightly, like a Tipu Sultan with his sword.” (Page 6)

In his column, ‘Aurat, pardah aur jadeed zindagi ke masail’ (Woman, veil, and the problems of modern life), Waris Mir starts with a reference to General Zia’s interview with the chief editor of a London-based journal ‘Arabia’. In the interview General Zia had acknowledge that even after eight years in power his military regime had failed to establish a system of government in accordance with Islam.

Waris Mir responds by saying that: “They simply make noise about the advent of an Islamic system but in fact they try to justify their own authoritarian rule under conditions of martial law… In some countries where revolutionary governments aligned themselves with the interest of the people, the rulers did not strengthen [the] status quo or use ‘law and order’ as an excuse to legitimize their rule. Rather, they introduced economic, educational, political, and social reforms, and people loved them.” (Page 20-21)

Waris Mir explains that in Pakistan we cannot initiate an Islamic system without a democratic and welfare system. “Unless we transform our unjust system based on unequal economic distribution, and unless our government, policies, and politics are in the hands of people’s representatives the talk of an Islamic system is just a ruse.” He exposed the Zia regime by highlighting that equating Islam with harsh punishments and laws such as the law of evidence or certain kinds of outward appearance was an attempt to divert people’s attention from real issues of democracy, equal rights, and justice.

Waris Mir’s lines are as relevant today as they were 35 years ago: “The present government, rather than harmonizing religion with modern life, uses obsolete slogans and inserts them in the constitution and laws with an understanding that they will not implement but just brandish out-of-date terminology.” He clearly warns that a time will come when “history will prosecute the opportunists and powerful interest groups of today who have been working against the interests of the country.”

His condemnation of bigoted scholars is scathing: “Whenever a new wave of scientific and technological development knocks at our doors, so-called scholars start fidgeting and close their minds by trying to shut all door and windows. They soon feel suffocated and do exactly the same thing that they forbade and termed un-Islamic just a few years ago. Now most scholars have air-conditioners, phones, tape recorders, TV, and VCR, and send their children to foreign countries for modern education, but still they keep railing against [the] modern lifestyle to serve their own interests.” (Page 24)

Waris Mir tells us that most religious parties talk against democracy and the electoral process and then try to use all unfair means when the time for elections arrives. He agrees that religion forbids obscenity but its definition differs and there is no consensus among scholars about a dress code. He again quotes the liberal Egyptian scholar Qasim Amin as saying that a woman doesn’t need to cover her face, hands, and feet. He proves his point by quoting nearly all significant Imams in Islamic history. He writes, “I feel sorry for those scholars who try to deprive women of their rights and try to impose minute details that have been disputed for centuries.” (Page 27)

According to Waris Mir, in the pre-Islamic period there was so much obscenity and profanity that early Muslims had to exercise some restrain but that does not give us a leeway to impose in today’s world all traditions of the past. “In most civilized Western societies, a Muslim woman can venture out to a long journey without a close relative, and no stranger is likely to stare at her face. We have Pakistani women who studied abroad for five or seven years and can testify to this. Of course there may be some criminal or deranged elements but overall their societies are safe.” (Page 30).

To be continued

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.