Can’t touch this!

University of KarachiA few things happened this week to nudge me away from the uninspiring abyss that had been staring back at me the past few weeks. One was an incident at my alma mater, the University of Karachi (KU); the other, the lists of ‘ban-worthy’ words that were issued by the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA). In my head, some aspects of the two incidents overlap. Consider.

Earlier this week, I returned to KU with some friends from the National Students Federation (NSF), six years after dropping out. When I’d begun classes at the university’s computer science department in January 2002 as a starry-eyed 18-year-old who was new to Karachi, KU was supposed to be my first ‘home’ in this city. It was supposed to provide support and protection and nurture my grey matter.

It failed to do all of this then; and when I returned last week, as a self-assured 28-year-old, it failed to support, protect and nurture again.For a while, we had a pleasant enough conversation with a professor. We discussed politics under Ayub Khan, the role of the DSF, the NSF, other student groups. It grew late and dark.

Then along came another professor, who was introduced to us as the head of a department, and someone who was sympathetic to left-wing/progressive politics. He shook hands with everyone in the group, including me; then, he suddenly realised that I was a woman, touched his ears, and said, ‘Sorry, yaar.’

And there we had it: in just two words – not even an entire sentence; just two words – Mr Professor had managed to reduce my entire existence to the worst form of objectification there is. In two words, my person was reduced to that of a sex object, merely shaking hands with whom would lead to things so abhorrent that they horrified even a man of the world, such as Mr Professor.

This was not the first time that I was subjected to such behaviour in Pakistan, and it is far from the last. The reason I was more horrified than usual this time round, was because men such as Mr Professor are supposed to teach and nurture students – young adults of all genders. If this is the manner in which they treat their female students, what will the latter end up learning?

What example are they setting for their male students?And this brings us to the two lists of banned words that the PTA had issued last week. The first thought that had popped in my head when I first saw it was that this had to be the most comprehensive list of cuss-words that I’d ever come across; and that my tax money had been abused to put it together.

Then I realised that not every word on those lists was a cuss-word. No, sir. I came across words of everyday use, some of which had no purpose other than as clinical references to women’s sexual and reproductive organs and processes. ‘Period’, for instance. How is that a ban-worthy term, pray tell? It is part of women’s natural bodily functions – one that happens almost every month. New life wouldn’t be formed if women didn’t have their periods. As something that is part of the process of creating life, how, dear PTA wallahs, is ‘period’ a dirty, ban-worthy word?

There were several other similar terms on both lists, but you get my point, right? One wonders, rather sadly, how we as a people, have collectively stooped to the level where the female form and function have become targets of constant denigration; a disgusting reality that must not be touched or even looked at; that must be covered up and thrown into a corner where we aren’t reminded of her existence. ‘Sure, she exists, but that doesn’t mean that we have to put up with her in the public domain,’ seems to be the dominant attitude. Off with her head!

Well, here’s a request: can we please, for the love of whatever we hold dear or holy, get over our obsession with the female body? Please stop ruining the lives – and the physical and mental wellbeing – of our girls and women. Your honour is connected solely to your own actions, not hers. Stop pawning your dishonourable acts off on her by making her body the keeper of your tattered ghaerat.

Shaking hands with a woman will not land you in hell; your dishonesty and corruption probably will. What she wears or doesn’t wear is not going to affect you in any way, unless you’re a rapist who likes to blame his victim for his own mental illness. Covered, uncovered, partially covered, soft, loud, whatever – just let our women be. Stop already! – PT