Book Reviews

Kya Aurat Aadhi Hai? – (Is Woman Half A Human?) Book Review

By Sana Munir

Is woman half a human? This is a million dollar question that still haunts the Pakistani society, although the first person to put forward this query forcefully almost two decades ago was Professor Waris Mir.

The book under review is a collection of his series of columns titled Kya Aurat Aadhi Hai (Is Woman Half the Human?) which he wrote during the 1980s. As he was adamant to challenge the discriminatory Qisas and Dyat laws introduced by the country’s third military dictator, General Ziaul Haq, Waris Mir had to pay a heavy price: he was declared an infidel. Significantly, the issues Waris Mir had profusely discussed in his writings are very much relevant to the present times – Islam, veil, the movement for women’s liberation, the accusation of Westernisation, Qisas and Diyat laws, women’s rights as human rights, women’s testimony and the stature of women in Pakistani history, etc.

The worst decadence that comes with the package of military dictatorship in any part of the world is totalitarianism – an estimation of one’s self as a demigod – the totalitarian sees the world through his own pigeonhole and imposes upon others the same myopic view. The decade of dictatorship of General Ziaul Haq brought, amongst other things, the cruel subjugation of women by reducing their social and legal status to half of that of men. It was done through controversial legislation and the aid of the religious clergy. This meant that a woman’s testimony was considered half by the law, domestic and social suppression. Those women and a handful of men who did stand up to raise their voices against the laws made by Zia were slapped with tags of being Westernised and that they tarnished the name of Islam and Pakistan. A few were also faced with religious decrees calling them infidels. Waris Mir was one of them.

Having himself been beaten by the Lahore police in 1982 on the Mall along with Habib Jalib, Asma Jahangir, Aitzaz Ahsan, I. A Rehman and many others, while accompanying women in their protest against anti-women laws, Waris Mir knew the battle he had stepped into against the military dictator. He was fighting with a force that had tightened its fist on the political, civilian, social, cultural lives of the people. The General even wanted to get control of their religious lives and beliefs. The faith that teaches equality to mankind was suddenly reduced to a lopsided religion that attempted to take society back to the medieval age. Worse could have happened if Waris Mir had not taken up his pen and brandished it in the face of the mighty dictatorship.

Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan writes in the preface of the book Kya Aurat Aadhi Hai? (Is woman half a human?): “The paradox of the Pakistani society is that many issues co-relating women and society have been pulled into tangles by the religious clergy themselves and when this is the case, when a person writes about those issues within the circumference of Islam while silkening out all such intellectual knots is the real spirit of writing and presents the actual strength of the pen. And most of all it does not involve any rifle, ammunition or grenade. Pakistan has been very lucky in this regard that in a time when all the propositions and applications of the Zia regime related to women and society were proving to be futile, Waris Mir emerged through his writings as a savior of society.”

While writing the forward of the book, renowned human rights activist Ms Asma Jehangir states: “The issues addressed by Waris Mir in his book have been seen from an intellectual’s viewpoint, rounded-off as in the debate of a brilliant orator and explained thoroughly with the expertise of a seasoned lecturer – three of Professor Waris Mir’s fields of experience. In my opinion, Kya Aurat Aadhi Hai is a precious collection of such essays in which the late scholar has curtly criticised the discrimination against the Pakistani women in the law of the land as well as orthodox norms of our society, besides giving a picture of the requisites of the present times that the woman of today needs so that she can lead her life as a complete human being.”

Instead of frothing at the mouth at the gross injustice meted out women, Waris Mir kept his cool. He sanely pours out to one reference after the other – from the Holy Quran, the sayings of the Quaid, the long ages of evolution of civilisation and culture, demography and human psychology. In expressing these thoughts with unassailable logical, he has done more than writing columns. He was single-handedly infusing a revolution when we were still not sure whether to label a woman as a complete human being or not. Does being a woman mean being a no-man?

Usually, those who talk about the rights of women are women themselves. That is why it has always been so easy to dismiss them by giving them the tag of being Westernised feminists. Waris Mir, quoting from the Holy Quran, feminist thinkers like Simone de Beauvoir and by giving historical and social references, paints a picture that is neither based on singular line of thought nor philosophical ponderings that are impossible to be translated into reality. Being an educator, his writings reflect sincere devotion and agonising concern that sometimes makes him sound ironic, even satirical and very forceful. What Waris Mir’s words emboss on the reader’s mind is not psychological charging, emotional fuelling or poetic rhetoric – and that is the reason probably why they get embossed – they are argumentative, challenging and well-rounded case stances.

“If I would get a chance, I would definitely stand up against the dishonoured figure of womanhood in our society. I would definitely convey to the people that a woman working for the sake of her family cannot bring a danger to the name of Islam. Rather what needs to be dealt with is the deplorable condition of the rural woman, the disgracing of women (from a social and cultural context), the trafficking of women as objects of sale – Does anyone related to the ‘so-much-concerned’ departments ever wonder how many women can cause harm to the religious laws and social setup of our society and how many of these women are actually victim of the very social fabric of our country?”

Waris Mir further wrote in one of his columns: “The truth is usually very bitter and not everyone can have the courage to swallow this bitter pill. Therefore, one can rightfully say that the society that keeps its women enchained is actually itself a suffering and sick society. People belonging to such suffocated environs abandon other patterns of social structure on the grounds of the explicit issues related to connection between the two genders. Of course, those advocating the rightful and honourable place for the women of this country do not want Western concepts of communal existence – We collectively need to get rid of hypocrisy, cowardice and self-deception regarding this issue and extend out generally the making of a courageous, enlightened and conscientious societal composition.”

The infamous Hudood Ordinance, which was enforced by the Zia regime in 1979 in collusion with the religious clergy, had badly disturbed the balance of the social structure of Pakistan. Despite the enforcement of Women’s Protection Act by yet another military general, the status of the Pakistani women remains mired in controversy. The Pakistani woman still faces the paradox of being incomplete in regard to her position, respect and dignity in society. Voices continue to be raised against honour killings, domestic violence and discrimination against women on the basis of gender. In the words of Waris Mir, “It’s a simple fact that if dissident voices are suppressed, they shall bounce back with more force.”

Unlike feminist philosophy that tends to turn the genders against each other thus creating a void in the social structure, a realistic approach combined with open-mindedness can not only give the rightful and honourable place to men and women but also create a harmonious social setup. “Man and woman are not supposed to be daggers drawn against each other. Both of them present two sides of the same picture… In reality, by creating a rift between both the genders no social structure can sustain for a longer period of time… The present requirement is to make the men accept and understand the issues related to women in an unprejudiced manner. Similarly, women should also be given the confidence and awareness for self-respect.”

In the present era of ‘military-mullah alliance’ where each is bent upon holding on to power, womankind has suffered most. Each time the mullah raises his head to say something, it is either about the length of the garments of the women, the debate about veil and modern women, the deprivation of women of their human rights or something similar. The history of Pakistan reveals that dictators have to rely on the street power of the religious fanatics to establish a political commune – as did General Zia, who was the hero of the Afghan jihad.

The religious clergy of the 1980s which was led by Jamaat-e-Islami during the Zia era, had labeled Waris Mir as an infidel who was coaxing women to become Westernised, to go without their head-to-toe veils, contribute to society and country in a useful manner, to think of themselves as complete human beings and rational creation whom God Himself created at par with men. The religious clergy then and now has never stood up against social crimes like swara, vani, nikah with Quran, karo kari and other forms of honour killings.

Waris Mir was one of those unarmed soldiers of journalism who fought till the very end. He had to face fatwas by the religious clergy and many a time he himself and his family suffered at the hands of the mighty general. That was the time when speaking out the truth could cost you your life. Waris Mir spoke with full force for women, against totalitarianism and the mighty ruling coalition of religious fanatics and the army generals. Waris Mir died young but has left behind a world of words that are still waiting to be put into practice.