The definition of morals according to the Merriam-Webster is ‘of or relating to principles of right or wrong in behaviour.’
What may be right or wrong in behaviour is generally dependant on personal interpretation. There are, however, some universally accepted codes of unacceptable behaviour such as lying, thieving, cheating, etc.
The way we dress, how we speak and our thoughts and opinions are personal and while they may be subject to criticism, stamping a moral question mark on them is highly questionable.
‘Haya and eman go together. Lose one, lose both.’
‘Kapray baicho, ghairat nahin.’
These are two examples of billboards which suddenly appeared overnight in Karachi a few months ago. Hitherto unknown organisations such as the Women’s Education Society, the Women’s Professional Forum and the Muslim Awareness Forum popped up claiming credit. At the same time, the Jamaat-e-Islami and Tanzeem-e-Islami while denying any role in this moral messaging, staged rallies against ‘vulgarity’ in advertising. Many of these billboards were guerrilla staged – illegally covering paid billboards which one may argue was a moral transgression in itself.
The focus of their ire appeared to be the billboards that had been primarily advertising lawn and which showed bare skin aplenty. That the models in all these billboards were painfully skinny and might be encouraging anorexia among impressionable teenage girls was not a cause for concern. The fact that the skin showing designs were not influencing women to copy them was also not considered.
Oddly enough, the law of the land is exploited on a daily basis. We drive on the wrong side of the road, we don’t wear seat belts, we crash red lights, speed as and when we please while talking on our mobile phones. We witness abuse against children, women and minorities on a daily basis. We are increasingly corrupt.
We produce more children than we can feed and then put them on the street to beg.
None of this, apparently, is cause for moral concern. How women dress is of paramount importance. It can spell doom for the nation and even cause the end of the world. Never mind the verse in the Holy Quran pertaining to the behaviour and clothing of men. Never mind that these verses specifically state that men must lower their gaze when women pass by. It seems that men are completely powerless over their libidos and therefore women must bear the burden of controlling them.
Let’s look at this campaign from an advertising lens. Like all guerrilla campaigns it was deeply polarising (vehement agreement versus outraged disagreement and nothing in between), had everyone abuzz for the first few weeks, then it died its own natural death. It was certainly distinctive but at the end of the day lacked relevance. There was no functional benefit – every woman knows that even if she covers herself from head to toe she will still be ogled at. There was no higher order emotional benefit – 99% of women dress ‘decently’, without showing any skin, they pray and fast and lead nondescript lives and therefore know that they are in no mortal or moral danger.
This campaign was aimed at converting the bayghairat, bayhaya one percent who really didn’t give a damn about what the moral police had to say.
This is the one percent who walk into balls wearing miniskirts and gowns under abayas. This one percent however is not restricted to the upper echelons of society; it also contains that ordinary middle-class girl desperate to become a media darling. However, at the end of the day, women no matter how liberal or conservative do not walk about in tiny, spaghetti strapped lawn shirts, because if that were the case, a lot less fabric would be sold, lawn sales would plummet and chances are the 100 odd lawn exhibitions would not take place. And the one percent who do wear revealing clothes, do so behind closed doors (let them live their little fantasies in private if they wish to do so).
So if there is a campaign afoot to improve the moral fibre of this society, it might be a better idea to move away from misogynistic focus on women’s clothes to something more tangible and relevant. And if the libido of men has a life of its own, may we suggest chastity belts?
S. Hyder is a creative working for a Pakistani advertising agency.