One of the features of contemporary social discourse is that rights are treated as absolute. A libertarian approach is taken on issues of body autonomy and personal choices. As such, freedom of choice is viewed without qualification or regulation. In contrast, the traditional Muslim approach has been to tie individual rights to social responsibilities. For instance, sexual conduct is not allowed outside the confines of a legal contract, because it is tied to the responsibility towards one’s spouse. This responsibility goes beyond the financial to include emotional and mental well-being. Any individual choice is viewed through its repercussions on others in the collective, of which one is a part. This means an individual owes others through the social contract. Consequently, arguments of “doing no harm” constitute a minimum threshold and are not sufficient to justify personal choice and consensual conduct. In short, individual autonomy is never absolute in Muslim societies.
It is this understanding that allows us to understand strong responses to the personal choices of celebrities and other popular individuals in Pakistan. Generally, the concern in a traditional Muslim society is on public display and not the private space where sattar (privacy) is respected and spying is prohibited on the pain of punishment. In terms of public display, three contemporary issues stand out – dress choices for women, LGBTQ advocacy in schools, and consensual sexual conduct. In each of these cases, the Pakistani public has responded strongly to individuals who have traversed the traditional norms of Muslim societies.
Recently, Amna Ilyas courted strong responses for flaunting a mini skirt. However, she has not been the first to wear a provocative dress. Anita Ayub’s bikini precedes her sartorial choice by decades. One way to understand the strong response is to stereotype all Pakistani men as sexually frustrated individuals in a gender segregated society. Another viewpoint is that celebrities court controversy to attract attention for their latest projects. However, stereotyping men is neither desirable nor enough to limit cyber trolling. Similarly, celebrities universally stoke controversies and so there is nothing unique about Pakistani celebrities in this regard. A better understanding emerges when we witness how middle-class Pakistani women express concerns on the dress choices of Pakistani female celebrities. This is because middle-class Pakistani women are bound to Muslim morality, and are often the flag bearers of middle-class Pakistani morality. Many of them are raising teenage daughters and are concerned about the impact such celebrities have on them as role models.
In general, celebrities are imbued with much power in pushing the societal envelope, and mothers are uber protective of their children against fads and trends that influence impressionable youth. They respond strongly whether it is the conduct of celebrities or when there is change to the curriculum that goes against their traditionally held morality. Such has been the case when British Muslim parents pushed back at LGBTQ content in schools. Activists who draw their case from slogans like “my body, my choice” or “love is love” or whose approach is more libertarian on individual autonomy, may want to understand that their fiercest resistance does not emanate from cyber-trolling frustrated single men, but from parents who zealously guard the societal space for their children. Such activists, who are often young and passionate, should note that the approach of rights sans responsibility does not work for Muslim and Pakistani middle-class society. They can push for change, but the magnitude of that change will be limited and balanced by the concerns of the class that upholds traditional morality.
Finally, there are young folks who feel that traditional morality is outdated. They question the proscription of pre-marital sexual conduct as archaic, especially given contraception practices including prophylactics and pills. The argument is based on the idea that body autonomy is absolute and that consensual sexual conduct does not harm anyone. However, body autonomy in Muslim societies is not absolute, given body grooming requirements for both men and women and circumcision for men that is part of the social contract of the Muslim society, just as it is for the Jewish community. As for zina, putting aside issues of drug resistant STIs and lifelong recurring symptoms of HPV, there are issues of self-centred narcissism and objectification of other human beings in a culture of rampant hookups. Once again, the issue of responsibility to one’s partner and to the larger societal collective in terms of maintaining the sanctity of the roles of Ammi and Abbu are quintessential for a Muslim society. It is this protection of the family unit, focused on raising the next generation, that is highlighted by Ghamidi Sahib in his explanation of the prohibition of zina.
Overall, from an individualistic or libertarian perspective there does not seem to be anything wrong with sartorial choices, body autonomy, or LGBTQ concerns. But from a traditional Muslim perspective that binds rights to responsibilities, such approaches are met with fierce resistance from the middle class that is often the flag bearer of traditional Muslim norms. There are limits to what can be accommodated in a Muslim community and such limits are understood with time as young activists grow up to be responsible parents. Thus, while issues of the challenges faced by single mothers, the pressures faced by women to bear many children, the issues of domestic physical and emotional violence against both women and the LGBTQ, will be and should be addressed by the middle class, those that go beyond the hadd (limit) of Muslim morality will not be countenanced. Thus, activists who push for absolute rights will find countervailing balance from the equally significant concern on responsibilities.
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