Our very own illustrated novelist Mohammad Hanif, while writing on the BBC Urdu Service website, recently argued that Sawat was on its way to rest of Pakistan. Maybe in the next two years time, the next Sawat could be your or my town. Sawat has been making top headlines in the media recently due to the brazen destruction of girls’ schools by the Pakistani Talibans. Their version of Islam, it seems, envisages a world devoid of a role for the women in the society. This narrow interpretation of Islam appears to appeal even those living several hundred kilometers away from Sawat.
Take Balochistan capital, Quetta, for instance where a few restaurants have declared to have shut their doors for women. Certain popular restaurants have now begun to display boards saying ‘for gents only: Women’s entry not allowed” [See photo]. As the so-called champions of Islam believe eating outside along with one’s family amounts to acting un-Islamic, they have been secretly persuading the owners of these restaurants to permanently shut even those sections of the restaurants which were formerly ‘exclusively for women and families.’
Located on the city’s most crowded Jinnah Road, Baig Snack Bar has been one of the most popular eating places for the youths and families of Quetta. Known for its popular soup, delicious charga [fried chicken] and chicken burger, yummy ice-cream, the Bar has remained a major eating out place for the individuals and families throughout the years. Similarly, keeping in view its popularity among the women and children, the bar had dedicated a separate room for the women and families who came to take snack. However, it has recently succumb to the pressure of the conservative religious elements who have demanded the closure of the women’s section on the allegations that the snack bar was being used as a ‘dating point’ by the young boys and girls of Quetta.
Today, the section reserved for women and family has ultimately been converted into a ‘gents only’ eating room and several warning boards have been displayed announcing that the women are not allowed entry in the restaurant.
“This is sheer discrimination with the women. No restaurant has the right to treat women like animals. We have seen places with notices saying that animals are not allowed but now they are treating women just like animals and discouraging their socialization. Is this what Islam teaches about women?,” asked Samina [named changed], a student of the Bolan Medical College who said she was a regular visitor of the restaurant along with her college colleagues.
Local residents of Quetta say that the religious right aggressively believed that a male and female couple could not socialize under any pretext except for having some ‘immoral activities’ in their minds. Thus, the moral policing continues in the provincial capital and shops and restaurants which attract more female customers become a target of the religious elements’ wrath. Since the pressure from the religious right is intense, the restaurant owners prefer not to talk to the media about the causes of closing their businesses for the women.
Zafar Baloch, a previous year student of the Mass Communication Department at the University of Balochistan, says Quetta has had a few eating places which had reserved special sections for women and families. Otherwise, most restaurant owners even do not encourage women’s arrival in their outlets. “Instead of encouraging such restaurants that facilitate women’s arrival and provide them separate family halls, the handful of remaining popular restaurants are also beig forced to put their shutters down for the women,” he remarked.
Senior journalist Shahzad Shah Mir says that Taliban and their supporters had been penetrating in and outsider Quetta in the past. They enjoy overwhelming support of some sections of the population, including many ministers of the Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI-Fazal) who are a part of the provincial coalition government.
“Recently, video and CD shops and internet cafes have been attacked by the Islmaists with bombs and threats have been given to everyone who promotes obscenity and shamelessness in the society,” informed Shahzad. According to him, if these activities are not checked at once, Quetta could become the next Sawat. “What message do we want to give to the whole world when we shut the doors of our restaurants for women and display clear messages that their entry is banned? If it is the restaurants today, the next to follow are surely the girls’ schools and colleges,” he prognosticated.