Recently there was a simple, endearing display of affection between a couple that had just decided to spend the rest of their lives together. The proposal was made on the University of Lahore campus amidst their friends and was followed by an affectionate hug between the couple. That embrace was so demonised by the vocal right, that it now hangs like the sword of democles over the heads of the hapless couple*. A hug! Their fault was that they behaved normally in a sweet moment of joy, rather than in the unnatural constipated manner that is de rigeur and “decent” for all happy occasions involving a man and a woman. Most of the social media comments about the incident have left me not only stunned but also depressed. They well and truly show up the ugly patriarchal underbelly of our besieged society.
From celebrating birthdays to personal successes to proposals, the way of the pious right around their other halves in public is to behave with no more feeling than a vacuum cleaner. (Or a toaster if your tech knee jerk brings visions of food to mind rather than a sparkling floor!)
When did we become so hypocritical, intolerant and judgmental? It could have been during the focused militant Islamization of the country in the wake of the American proxy war with Soviet Russia. Or, it could have been the critical tipping points where socio religious decisions that could have laid the blueprints for a more equitable, inclusive and psychologically healthy society, were made instead to appease the extremist fringe which has always had the loudest megaphones. And so now in 2021, while the rest of the world is debating AI* ethics, we still consider half our human population as circumstantial, where laws and rights blur into oblivion: if you happen to inherit the Y chromosome, every opportunity opens up to you; but if you land up with the double (h)ex, you’re left to the mercy of male egos, testosterone-fuelled whims and religious fillibusters. Indeed, it is this gross distortion in how the State views each gender that has led to this stunning breakdown of social normalcy.
This dismal failing on the part of our legislative bodies and our religious leadership has also led to what can only be described as a collective national psychosis. Women and men alike are exhibiting bizarre mental derangement, with one imagining the world revolves around him and the other, that the world does indeed revolve around him. Oh, and she helps to spin it.
So detrimental to our social structures and mental and emotional wellness is this state of affairs that as with any imbalance in nature be it physical or emotional, there are ultimately equalizing and opposing forces to repair the equilibrium (bless Newton!). And so, in the case of our Islamic republic, despite being the alleged custodians of orthodoxy and conservatism, we also have the dubious recognition of being one of the top porn searching/ watching countries in the world. (There are some Western and African countries that surpass our national porn viewership but they don’t profess to be Islamic, Christian or Jewish Republics. They are secular states and largely follow the philosophy of “live and let live” that we combatively decry). Does Islam consider this kind of sexual titillation a cardinal sin? Yes absolutely. Is that a deterrent? Never, in spite of all the impassioned denials. Can we sit back and morally judge this fall from grace? No; since it is, in big part, the attempt of our human psyche to compensate for the abnormal lack of everyday warmth and emotional fulfilment in even normal, legally contracted relationships.
Relegating all kinds of affection behind closed doors also paints the most innocent gestures of love and care with the brush of indecency and impropriety. Children in our society never see their parents sharing a quick hug or a kiss on the cheek in public; and because they don’t see that affection, they never learn to associate it with the simple fact of being human, being a family and being connected. And so we’re assiduously spawning generations that are increasingly intolerant, embarrassed and offended by any overt show of warmth, affection and joy.
I recall a couple of episodes from my own corporate life where I was also a member of the Committee on Ethical Conduct. The committee, expected to dispense disciplinary action, was shown CCTV footage of young boys and girls, fresh entrants into the corporate fold, caught in compromising situations in little-used ATM kiosks. These hijab-wearing young women and bearded young men were probably from stiflingly conservative households. Having had no outlet for even normal social interactions with the opposite sex while growing up, and later, outside of work, led them to commit unthinking acts of pent up frustration. These were not “bad” men and women. They were the unfortunate products of our small minded, aberrant approach to inter-gender community, accessibility and interaction.
Until we stop claiming the moral high ground with nothing dazzling to show for it; until we stop judging and look beyond ourselves at some of the progressive ways of the rest of humankind that is almost 8 billion strong; until we stop associating rigidity and patriarchy with the essence of Islam, we will continue to erode the very humanity from our societies. We will continue to devolve until there is nothing left but the detritus of hate, bigotry and dogmatism.
The violent invective and demeaning actions we reserve for any kind of openness have to stop. The egos have to be reined in. We as a nation and as an Islamic community need to unlearn the intolerance and hypocrisy around love, and relearn how to feel comfortable with expressions of basic warmth and affection. There has to be more to us than unkempt beards, holy wars and houri* birthrights.
It’s time we found and focused on other, more positive legacies of our rich Islamic heritage.
** Title inspiration and adaptation from the 1985 Gabriel G. Marquez novel titled “Love in the time of Cholera”
* Read the original News story here: https://ara.tv/g558y
* AI: Artifical Intelligence
*Houri: a beautiful young woman, especially one of the virgin companions of the faithful in the Muslim Paradise.