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Pakistan's Muslim women and the 'Fun' word

July 01, 2016 15:01 IST

'Obedience, service and an over-glorified stress on keeping the family's honour intact, keep Muslim women from focusing on their own happiness.'
'So they stay joyless and 'pious,' with an ever-present hint of bitterness for the fun-loving women,' says Zoia Tariq.

IMAGE: Young girls in Karachi, Pakistan, give in to the selfie craze. Image only published for representational purposes. Photograph: Akhtar Soomro/Reuters

Farida's melodious voice resonated in my living room. She sang the Punjabi folk song about promises of love and dreams of a lover, her eyes closed, her body swaying, with a blissful smile on her face as if in a trance. I looked at her, fascinated by the transformation of a sad and tired woman into a joyful lively being.

Suddenly she opened her eyes, looked around as if coming out of a spell and uttered "astaghfirullah" (may Allah forgive me), looking horrified. She got up from the carpet where she was sitting, and started reassuring me that she never sang or thought about romance or romantic songs. I told her that I enjoyed it and if singing and dancing brought her joy, she should do it more often. That made her turn red in the face.

"I am not the type of a woman who has fun dancing and singing. I am a Muslim woman!" she said indignantly. "I don't even watch Indian movies or Pakistani dramas on my cable, just the religious channels." I watched her as she picked up the duster from the sofa and resumed dusting the already gleaming glass table tops, chanting "tauba, tauba" (repentance).

Farida (all names have been changed) works as a house maid in two more houses in my neighbourhood beside mine. She works diligently, honestly and quietly, her head covered with a scarf, even while doing the laundry. I haven't seen her smiling in the last five years she has worked for me and it concerned me. I have tried everything, she accepts money, days off, groceries etc with gratitude, but I have never witnessed any spark of joy in her. Until today.

A wedding in my family was coming up and I asked her if she knew of any folk song we can add to the song list the girls can dance to. Something old and traditional, preferably in Punjabi. That got her thinking and she mentioned the song. I asked her to sing it for me as I wasn't familiar with it. And she did. And how she enjoyed it. And the guilt she felt, because she did.

I have observed this guilt in women coming from every income level and age groups. Unfortunately, it is a distinct behaviour witnessed among Muslim women/girls. We somehow have been conditioned to believe that a woman having fun is haram (forbidden) in Islam.

Women in a Muslim society are raised to believe that the purpose of their existence is to provide joy, without ever experiencing it. Hence any mention of the F word is considered a threat to their ideology.

I once posed the 'F' question to a vibrant 17-year-old college student, while having coffee at Bhushandhara, a shopping mall in Dhaka. These two burqa-clad young girls complimented me on my Pakistani dress and I asked them to join me at my table.

After being seated, I casually asked them about fun activities for teenage girls in Bangladesh. The girls looked a bit bewildered as one of them, Yasmeen, said she was having fun right now as her brother has dropped her here and "allowed" her to shop alone with her friend.

"I don't have the other kind of fun," she said. "There are kinds?" I asked. "You know, partying, singing, dancing, going out alone, meeting boys, wearing Western clothes and laughing out loudly," she explained.

"What's wrong with laughing out loud?" was my sincere query.

"Nice Muslim girls don't laugh like a man. In fact, they don't laugh at all, they just smile," was the instant response. I could see the other girl nodding in affirmation.

Interestingly enough, I heard the same comment from a Libyan friend. We were on a Skype call and I shared a funny incident. She laughed out loud, but immediately covered her mouth with her hands. "Sorry, I hope my husband didn't hear me laughing like a trashy woman."

I simply could not fathom why her husband thinks that trashy women laugh in a particular manner and what exactly he meant by the term. She explained that a good Muslim woman does not laugh. In fact, even men shouldn't laugh.

Then she messaged me this Hadith:

'Do not laugh too much, for laughing deadens the heart.' Narrated by al-Tirmidhi, 2305; Ibn Maajah 4193

Any further argument would have sounded blasphemous, so I ended the discussion. But was still curious why 'fun' and 'joy' were included in the (already long) list of prohibited actions in the life of a Muslim woman.

A few months back, I was at a dinner in Multan, a city in southern Punjab, and a group of women were discussing the right way of praying in Islam. One of them, a 30-something, well-educated woman, declared, "It's important that you pray with all your heart when you talk to Allah. There should be tears in your eyes for his forgiveness."

"But what about smiling or laughing while talking to the maker above? He loves us more than 70 mothers, surely he will like to see us all happy when we talk to him?" I inquired.

"You don't laugh when you talk to Allah, it is not like you are having fun. It is something serious," I was admonished by the now angry woman. Oblivious to the hostile stares I was receiving from the group, I insisted, "But talking to Allah should be the happiest time of the day."

"No, you got it wrong. You aren't happy, you are at peace after shedding a few tears before him. And I suggest that you should start attending the weekly Dars (sermon) so these ideas of having fun while praying exit from your mind and fear of judgement day becomes your primary concern," I was advised.

Another interesting incident after having lunch at a cafe with a friend made me realise how women in a Muslim society are expected to behave in public. The day after we met, my friend called me up and said she was under a lot of trouble because one of her husband's colleagues saw us in the cafe and called her husband. And when she reached home, her husband was furious.

She immediately felt guilty that it must be something she has done (or not done) at home. But as her fuming and yelling hubby enlightened her that it didn't have to do with home. It was what she did at the cafe. She was laughing loudly with her friend (that's me) like she was having "FUN", and that, of course, was unforgivable.

She told me that the manner in which he spat the 'F' word, she was almost sure it was the other F word which he used regularly, but was prohibited for her as it was a "man only" word. He said she should have taken into consideration her husband's honour in town. His friends saw her having F and they must be thinking that his wife is "that kind" of a woman.

She apologised and assured him that she wasn't having fun at all. She just got carried away and will never laugh out so loud in public again.

But I asked her if that's the truth. "No! I did have fun," she said, then corrected herself. "Let's say I was having a good time. No. Even that sounds un-Islamic. I think I can say I was happy. That's allowed, right?" she asked. I wasn't too sure.

I once asked my close friend, based in Faisalabad, about the moments she really looks forward to or enjoys. According to her, she enjoyed watching her kids having fun, her husband playing cricket with his friends in their garden and the family relishing a great meal cooked by her.

But I wanted to know if there was a fun activity that did not involve someone else's happiness. She thought for a long, long time and then said, "I think if I wear a pair of jeans with a nice T-shirt and put on makeup plus high heels and go on a drive with my sister, while music is playing in my car, it will be great fun."

Coming from a religious, though affluent, family where she was supposed to cover herself from head to toe, even in front of the male hired help and music or going out alone being absolutely forbidden, this was an impossible dream. "But I have a pair of jeans," she whispered, "My husband's business friend's wife forgot it at our place, when they visited us from the US. I wear it after locking myself in my room, put on makeup, and walk from one corner to another, like I am having fun shopping with my friends or at a cafe, with (imaginary) loud music playing in the background. Though it's something that will never happen in my life, I derive great pleasure just thinking about it. Hope Allah will forgive me for entertaining such pervasive thoughts."

As I found the whole idea of such innocent fun being considered a pervasive sin, I didn't bring up the 'joy issue' again.

I met a businesswoman from Izmir, Turkey at Dubai International Airport while browsing in the duty free shop. As both of us were annoyed at our delayed flights, we decided to have coffee to kill time. She told me she was a businesswoman and then added secretly, "You know, I am a divorcee." I didn't respond as it didn't need a response.

"I do not tell anyone this back home, as there is no acceptance for a divorced woman, traveling all alone and meeting new people. We women are supposed to make a marriage work, travel with a male member only and avoid strangers," she said. I asked her if she was happy. "Life is fun now. I could never have believed that there was so much happiness out there to experience. In music. In travel. In dressing up. In meeting new people. In freedom. I hope Allah forgives me. I do not want to end up in hell," she looked worried.

"For?" I was puzzled. "Having fun, as Islam does not encourage a woman to live this kind of life, interacting with strangers and enjoying it. She is also supposed wear a hijab, stay serious. Always forgiving and sacrificing. Never applying a strong perfume. Wearing simple clothes," she replied matter-of-factly pointing towards her fabulous shirt and trousers. What she meant was an interesting and joyful life is meant only for the Muslim man.

I have observed that Muslim women also tend to romanticise misery and tragedy, as if it's a life goal. In an Islamic society, women are expected to look stern, depressed and disinterested in life, in general. They are expected to be selfless, submissive beings living in fear -- of the maker, of their father, of their husband.

Obedience, service and an over-glorified stress on keeping the family's honour intact, keep them from focusing on their own happiness. So they stay joyless and 'pious', with an ever-present hint of bitterness for the fun-loving women.

I often look at women in restaurants, malls and their joyless faces along with their spark-less eyes make me wonder. Do they really believe this is the way to enjoy the gift called life?

My global friendships have suffered in the last few years due to the wave of extremism. The modern, interesting and intelligent friends of mine seem to belong to some other planet now. There is nothing to talk about as any kind of conversation on harmless fun doesn't seem that harmless to them.

I asked a recently "Islamised" friend of mine, based in Indonesia why Muslim women usually look bitter or angry.

"We are not bitter. We keep a serious face so men stay away from us and dare not make an attempt," she tried to explain. "Does it mean that Muslim women who like to wear a smile instead of a hijab and want to have fun, are just asking for it?" I was deeply offended. "Well, yes. If you smile or have a pleasant expression on your face like you are happy, you are encouraging men," she gave her verdict.

Needless to say, this was my last conversation with my hijabi Indonesian friend.

An Afghan woman I met at one of the gender conferences I attended, once told me that she finds immense joy in music and loves to dance after locking down her room, whenever she is feeling low. "I wear headphones in one ear so I can hear if my husband or mother-in-law call me and dance all I want. It is so much fun and immensely therapeutic. Hope no one ever finds out and hope Allah forgives me. I feel very guilty afterwards. But dancing makes me feel free. I want to become a singer. And learn dancing as I am terrible with it. I dance for fun but would love to learn the actual craft."

Then she spread her arms like she was about to fly and said, "I will feel this free and happy if I can ever become a singer or a dancer."

In all these years, I haven't ever heard the Muslim world praising a woman by stating how happy and fun loving she is or was. A good woman is always someone who observes purdah is submissive, has no interest in meeting people, has no opinion of her own, obeys her husband, is perfectly content sitting at home while her brother or husband travel all around the world, never laughs and is simply waiting for her real life to start after her death.

And, of course, she never thinks of the F word.

I tried searching the web on what the Islamic word has to say on happiness in the life of a Muslim woman. I could not find anything except instructions for her to be an obedient, pious, serve others, eat only halal and seek the pleasure of Allah for 'supreme success.'

No guideline for fun, the emotion that can fill your heart with joy and dreams, put a spring in your step, stars in your eyes and a smile on your lips.

I have often wondered what exactly is wrong with having fun. It can be listening to music. Going out with friends. Singing. Dancing. Travelling. Even working on something one is passionate about. Having the freedom to wear what one wants, meet whom one likes, speak on issues close to one's heart and experience the wonders of joy.

I can see a pattern here. Bring up the girls by telling them all they need is a husband to obey, kids to love, honour to protect, and if she follows all the given instructions, maybe she will be rewarded jannat (paradise). As long as she never entertains any 'fun' thoughts, as those are only for 'that' type of women.

The type that is alive. And happy. In this life. Not in the life after.

A Muslim woman's misery, suppression, sacrifice, gloom and joylessness are glorified in society by labelling her as a 'great' woman.

Not exactly a 'fun' way to live!

Zoia Tariq is a television host, writer and a gender activist. She is a strong advocate of global feminism and human rights. She is based in Lahore, Pakistan and can be reached at zoiatariq@gmail.com

Zoia Tariq