بِسْمِ اللّهِ الرَّحْمـَنِ الرَّحِيمِ
يَا أَيُّهَا النَّبِيُّ قُل لِّأَزْوَاجِكَ وَبَنَاتِكَ وَنِسَاء الْمُؤْمِنِينَ يُدْنِينَ عَلَيْهِنَّ مِن جَلَابِيبِهِنَّ ذَلِكَ أَدْنَى أَن يُعْرَفْنَ فَلَا يُؤْذَيْنَ وَكَانَ اللَّهُ غَفُورًا رَّحِيمًا
“O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks close round them (when they go abroad). That will be better, that so they may be recognized and not molested. Allah is ever Forgiving, Merciful.”
[Surah Al-Ahzaab 59]
Narrated ‘A’ishah [رَضِىَ اللهُ عَنهَا]: “Allah’s Messenger [صلی اللہ علیہ وسلم] used to offer the Fajr prayer and some believing women covered with their cloaks used to attend the Fajr prayer with him and then they would return to their homes unrecognized.”
[Sahih Al-Bukhari Volume 1, Book 8, hadith 368]
It is indeed a sign of the decadence prevalent in society when a dress code otherwise associated with the wives of the Prophet [صلی اللہ علیہ وسلم] and other chaste Muslim women duringhis time, comes to be known in some parts of the contemporary world as the identifier of women who have a completely contrasting motive to chastity and morality in mind when they set foot outside the house.
It started more than two years ago when I shifted to Zamzama Boulevard, Karachi. This was the first time in my life that I had lived independently as a nuclear family with my husband and kids, away from any other relative; aside from the three, short months I spent in Canada post marriage, living in a one-bed apartment.
Suffice to say, living in Zamzama was not really a matter of choice, because the circumstances that led to the move were related not to my whim but to events in my life that I had no control over. Truly, when a person cannot achieve what they desire in life, despite possessing the means and the apparent freedom of choice to do so, proves that some One else is in charge of one’s fate and destiny. And what Allah decreed has been very good for me, as time has revealed. But maybe I should blog about that in another post.
Moving here was very enlightening for me, to say the very least. I have discovered so many things about life and society in general by living in a heavily commercial area that is thronging with over-priced shops and eateries, that I could never have learned them in any college-taught course or by reading any book.
I have seen people of all kinds, living lifestyles of different levels, from the orange-uniformed sweepers who, unbeknownst to all, clean the streets of debris and clutter at night, to the couture-clad, designer-bag-toting ladies who frequent the restaurants, boutiques, bakeries and flower-shops during the day.
I have gone for long walks in the (in)famous Zamzama Park and noted the Nike shoe-and-apparel fashion show on display, overheard extremely interesting conversations between respectable, director-level position-holders who walk there daily in groups or pairs, and accidentally caught sight of couples making out behind the bushes in the dark.
Yes sir, I have seen and overheard many a thing that goes on at Zamzama, and finally, today I have decided to tell the world about it.
Last year, I used to walk from my cozy, top-floor apartment to the park. It was a short walk lasting barely five minutes, but it involved passing by several bystanders on the road and blue-collar personnel of shops on the main road (15th Street) that runs from Roasters to the entrance of the Zamzama mosque.
Once, when I was returning on the same route, I got a shock. The adhaan for ishaa salah was sounding, and I was hurrying back so that my husband could catch his congregation on time. Several bearded “maulvi’s” (I refer to them this way, because it paints the correct picture of what I mean. No derision is implied. If you find this word funny, please assess your own perception of religious people. Thank you!) of all ages and social levels were walking to the mosque on that road, either in groups or alone.
As a by the way, I find this trend very comforting – that in Zamzama, the adhaan blares very loudly five times a day (some mosques from Neelum Colony chime in with that of the Zamzama mosque), and many, many bearded men are visibly seen making their way diligently towards the mosque.
Anyway, on that night, I was walking away from the mosque, so several of these maulvi’s were coming my way, when my path was crossed by a broken bottle of you-know-what. I paused in my step to check if my suspicion was indeed correct, and as I read the label with a sickening feeling of disappointment, I saw an elderly, bearded gentleman passing by; a long tasbeeh in his hand, he chanced to look at me standing there with my foot placed on that broken evidence of debauchery.
I gave him a meaningful look deliberately. I wanted him to know that I was pointing out to him that broken bottle lying on the middle of the road on the way to the mosque, with my foot. He seemed to get the hint as his look transferred to the bottle. As he stared at it, I moved on, walking back to my house. I recalled what my maid had said once, and now I had seen the evidence with my own eyes:
“Baji, alcohol is sold in a few shops downstairs at night. Everyone knows about it. Guys come to drink it inside the sharab khana (bar).”
Shocked, I subjected my husband to one of my flare-up’s: “What are all maulvi’s including you doing about the open debauchery going on in this neighborhood? I saw the wine bottle rolling about on the road! This is supposed to be a “Muslim” neighborhood, and alcohol bottles are rolling about openly for us to slip on?”
Used to my emotional outbursts, he chose to remain silent (as usual). But I told my husband that if the piety of the practicing Muslims in the neighborhood was really up to the mark, they’d be revered too much by everyone else to have such goings-on being done openly. I suggested how something like this could not have happened even during the caliphates of the first Sahabi generations. Am I living in Utopia? Or am I just waking up from my idealistic slumber? You must be wondering.
I can sense the secular progressives raising their eyebrows and deriding this tirade of mine, spurned on on the basis of a mere bottle. My response to such people is that I am so grateful to Allah that it was the FIRST time in my life that I had come into such close contact with this kind of a bottle. I know, however, that this is not the case with a lot of my fellow Pakistani’s.
Our Prophet Muhammad [صلی اللہ علیہ وسلم] forbade Muslims to eat at a banquet where alcohol is served, and cursed the one who doesn’t drink it but even so much as sells it, pays its price, or transports it. I am proud to exhibit the same level of “intolerance” for such a beverage, call me self-righteous for it.
Also, I am no ostrich with its head buried in the sand. I have friends and acquaintances in this city who directly know people who drink. I know it is served inside homes (ones with families, not just bachelor pads or youth accommodations), at weddings, at private dance parties in affluent homes, in hotels, and at upscale cafe’s in opaque kettles.
I have been candidly sought for counsel by a couple of women married to men who drink with their bosom buddies whenever the latter visit – in their own homes. These are the wives who have to listen to their husbands lament their reversion to Islam with their best friends over the phone, “She stopped wearing sleeveless; then she stopped going to dance parties with me; and now she has started hijab.” They have to struggle each day with the practice of their religion and the Islamic tarbiyah of their little children. These are the wives who get up and leave when their husbands stare unabashedly at graphic love scenes on larger-than-life sized television screens, in DVD movies they watch together on their home theater system after the kids have gone to bed (sometimes, other couples are also invited for the private home cine-viewing).
So, please do not think that I am insisting that Pakistan is a “Muslim” country or that it is very pristine. What bothers me is that when something starts being done openly, in public, it stops being a “personal” matter and becomes a public one.
One of the best things about living in “Muslim-majority” areas is that vices and major sins that are forbidden in Islam are not done publicly, such as public displays of affection, extra-marital sex (paid or unpaid), drinking, partying, drugs, clubbing or gambling. In Pakistan, anyone who wants to indulge in such pursuits has to do it “on the sly”. And I for one would love to make sure things stay that way.
This was one of the main reasons I decided to raise my children in a Muslim-majority area, so that I will not live the life of the apologetic, gaze-averting Muslim who stands at risk of receiving stares and looks for their garb, or who have to cover their kids’ eyes in front of pounds of exposed flesh during the summer months, or from couples deciding to make out whilst standing at the check-out line at the convenience store; the Muslim who stops going to the mosque, or fears for his child’s safety from social ostracism at his public school, whenever a country-wide terror alert is issued after an incident involving a Muslim-named “terrorist” (never mind the scores of annual crimes and murders that happen otherwise, in which the religion of the attacker or criminal is never mentioned as part of the story line). I am not speaking for others, but just for myself here.
There are some people (such as the afore-mentioned of my friends whose husbands drink) who have expressed their desire to move abroad, away from their husband’s social circle, so that their kids will not have to watch so many people coming to their house to drink alcohol and watch movies on the home theater. To each their own. Alhamdulillah that I have no such problem.
To cut a long story short, the bottle rolling about on the road soon became the least of my concerns. The cheap apartment right next door to ours has been rented out by its owner since we moved here.
First, it was occupied by a few ladies and some guys – there was so much coming and going of different people that it was difficult to decipher who actually lived there. I tried to not think negatively about them, despite having seen some things, until one day one of them got involved in a middle-of-the-night hit-and-run. Police chased her to the building as she came running upstairs screaming at the top of her voice. At other times, it was my husband who had to see ladies dressed in mini-skirts and garish make-up descend the stairs when he went to, and came back from, the Fajr prayer before dawn. Once, I saw the packet of a cheap contraceptive lying on the stairs in our building.
How many times could we have mentally slapped ourselves for “thinking negative thoughts” about our neighbors? They slept throughout the mornings and awoke at 2 p.m., becoming fully active at night, so our paths did not cross much.
However, it was when the lady in question was caught red-handed in a case of kidnapping and flesh trade that they were finally thrown out by the real estate agent. A girl whom I saw coming to the next door apartment during the afternoon (when I was paying my Internet bill at my front door), reportedly ran off in the middle of the night screaming to a passing motorist, “Please take me away, they are trying to sell me off!” I recalled the loud screams I had heard the night before that broke my slumber, and it all added up. Those six months, when I had these neighbors, were my first glimpse into the dark underworld of Karachi’s so-called “posh-area-living”, so to speak.
Next, the apartment was let out to two young men who claimed to have a rent-a-car business. To date, they are still our neighbors. One is the employer who is usually away (he claims to have two wives) and the other is his employee who manages the “office” from the apartment’s drawing room, which has its separate entrance. I was soon to learn that the rent-a-car business also has its shady side.
The office starts operating at 2 p.m. and has its major customers after 11 p.m. at night, till dawn. All night the door opens and closes, and men and women both keep coming and going. Again, my “scapegoat” husband gets to see young ladies wearing black abayas descend the stairs, usually with a slick, smartly-dressed young man sporting a cell phone, get into a waiting car downstairs and leave.
They wear just the abaya, mind you, and not the scarf or head cover. Their face is made up and hair let loose, with high heels loudly pronouncing their entry and exit into and from the “office”.
Many a time, just after my husband leaves for work with my daughter, who is in tow for being dropped to school, the office door opens as I make my breakfast in the kitchen, and I hear loud heels clonking their way all the way down to the ground floor. Then, because of the calm, quiet hush of the early morning, I hear a door slam shut, a car rev up and drive away on the road downstairs. Despite not making any effort to spy or eavesdrop, the reality of what is going on next door cannot but hit me hard.
Once or twice, on my insistence, my husband knocked on the office door and asked the man, “Who were these women who just left?” The man, visibly flustered and nervous at the unexpected and direct query, stammered, “Car…a car..they rented a car and went somewhere…”, to which my husband replied curtly, “I see,” and returned. We were back at the real estate agent’s office downstairs, asking them to give these two men notice of vacating the apartment too. Real estate agents are only too aware of the shenanigans that goes in most top-floor, tiny apartments atop commercial buildings in congested shopping areas.
However, the black abaya is not just used to cover certain dresses whilst embarking on sneaky night trips. Once, as my husband was getting the kids to sit in his car at around 9 pm at night downstairs on a main Zamzama parking lot (the one which houses the entrance to Brands 4 Less), I was standing leaning on a car nearby, facing the road.
My position belied that I was with my husband and kids, and in retrospect, it might have seemed as if I was alone and not with them. To my utter disgust, a car slowed down in front of me – a flashy, big car, driven by a lone, dark, sturdy man probably in his mid thirties – who was leaning towards his car’s window that was on my side of the road and giving me a pointedly inquiring look. I felt utterly disgusted.
I was wearing my usual black abaya and navy-blue scarf with niqab. That night, it really hit home to me how this sanctified black dress – the honorable ‘badge’ of chaste women as endorsed by the Quran – is meant to identify the utterly opposite type of woman on Zamzama Boulevard at night. Its just the way he slowed down his car and looked that made me realize this; I was just standing there with my arms crossed. This has never happened to me anywhere in Karachi before. You might say that I am just jumping to conclusions – but I cannot explain the look he gave me. It was the look that disgustingly said it all.
This year, I drive to the park when I go for a walk there, because of the above incident; it just makes me feel safer. And eventually, after what I saw further outside the park entrance, I am glad I started doing this. One night, I saw a few young women standing there. One of them was in a black abaya and headscarf, another in jeans.
Actually, I happened to park near the place where they were standing that night, just opposite the gate of the park; it was the corner of the street which has an empty plot of land where those who come to the park (usually men who come after office hours), park their cars (notice the choice of location).
When I arrived, another car slowed down behind mine, just as I got out. The girl in the black abaya, wearing red lipstick and colored contact lenses in her eyes, came towards the car (which was being driven by a lone man), leaned in at the window and asked, “Jee?” (Yes?)”. He wasn’t looking her way. She realized that he had slowed down just to park his car (not to talk to her), and quickly went back to where she was standing on the street corner.
I mentally slapped myself for thinking the negative thoughts that came to my mind when I witnessed this firsthand. It was just a coincidence that I had seen this happen, as I usually get a parking place closer to the gate, but that night I had not, so I parked closer to the rubbish dump outside Mall Square. I chastised myself for thinking bad thoughts about these women, but couldn’t help notice how the corn seller, who stands at his push-cart outside the gate of the park, and his group of blue-collar worker friends were looking at these women. I’d describe their expression as barely disguised but watchful wariness and disdain.
When I came back after almost 45 minutes and made my way to my car, I saw that the women were still standing there. They had been joined by another skinny girl. The men standing around on the road were still watching them warily. I felt sick to my stomach. After a couple of nights, when my husband, children and I were coming back after 11 p.m. at night from somewhere, we passed by the same place on the road (which is a daily route for us), and I saw the same girl in jeans once again, standing alone there on the street corner, talking on her cell phone. When any car that passed her by on the road slowed down, she’d peer at it with wide eyes, leaning in a bit.
What is going on is an open secret. Everyone can see what is happening; what is being bought and what is being sold. Yet, no one feels their sense of morality aroused by witnessing this scenario, or at least that’s how it seems to me right now.
There are two sides to every story, though. What I am trying to say is, that where there is demand, there is a supply of appropriate products and services. If men in this city would never come near zinaa (adultery), no woman would ever dream of standing alone, or with her comrades, on a posh-area street corner at night, in the hope of soliciting customers to make some money.
And so it is with a sad heart that I realize that my ‘garb of chastity’, one that I have come to so love with each passing year – my beloved abaya and the accompanying head cover that I also draw across my face; this garb that I don to every place, be it a crowded market with ogling lechers, or an upscale wedding with the latest fashion trends on display, is, in my own neighborhood, the symbol of a completely opposite code of female conduct at night.
On Zamzama, now I know that going out alone on the streets in this dress at night would elicit a completely different kind of reaction than the one it receives during the day, when men move out of my way in the narrow staircase as I descend the stairs, or look away and leave my path as I walk towards my car.
Sadly, if you’re a young woman walking on a street of Zamzama alone at night, wearing anything else will probably paint a better moral picture of you than wearing the black abaya, headscarf and niqab - the once identifying dress code for chaste woman, which is being brutally exploited by night-owl sex-workers to conceal their identities, as they embark to do some shady business after dark, as night falls.