Manto and Aurat March

"Imagine an iron house without windows, absolutely indestructible, with many people fast asleep inside who will soon die of suffocation. But you know since they will die in their sleep, they will not feel the pain of death. Now if you cry aloud to wake a few of the lighter sleepers, making those unfortunate few suffer the agony of irrevocable death, do you think you are doing them a good turn?" I came across these lines as I was reading Lu Hsun’s Madman’s Diary. Though Lu had written these lines for the Chinese society way before the emergence of present day China, I found them to be very relevant in present day Pakistani society in a number of ways. One can either apply the abovementioned scenario to the political turmoil, or social putrefaction that has seeped through the society’s fabric and has been ingrained in the minds of our men and women. I would like to apply it to the latter one in this blog, with special emphasis on Aurat March.

If I were to imagine one person who was banging his fists against the walls of the iron house, trying to reach out to the “lighter sleepers” waking them up from eternal slumber, only one name ignites the spark in my mind – Sadat Hassan Manto. Manto, a name that haunts progressives and obscurantist alike till this day, may hold different significance for different people. Historians may dwell into his short stories to get a different account of partition. For religious entities, he might be a “pervert”, “obscene”, “vulgar” and what not. For the saner people, he was no less than a prognosticator who is more relevant today, than ever before. However, for me Manto was a vagabond, a social pariah and a deviant. I call him so, for he deviated from the social norms of the society. The norms that this society cherishes such as patriarchy, misogyny, hypocrisy, self-righteousness, bigotry, obscurantism and religious fundamentalism. How dare he show the society its real face? In a society marred by hypocrisy that looks upon women with jaundiced eye; on the one hand reprimanding and disciplining women on chastity and purity, and on the other hand taking physical advantage of vulnerable women, how dare he tried to unveil the ugly face of the society? In a society that wants to live in denial, how dare he clamored to wake it up from deep slumber? Isn’t it obvious that such an “obscene”, perverted and vile man had to be dragged to courts?

I believe that it was absolutely justified for the conservatives to continuously harass Manto and file cases against him in the court of law for the abhorrent crimes Manto committed against the people of the “Land of Pure”. For what else could be a bigger crime than to have awareness in the age of ignorance? Absolutely unforgivable. Dr. Ali Shariati has rightly said, “Aik jahil samaj me shaoor rakhna, naqabil-e-muaffi jurm hai”, and Manto committed that crime and befittingly paid for it. Manto’s existence was akin to a clean mirror, in which the society could see its own filth. A society that thrives on fabricated propaganda about its own identity, could not bear to see its repugnant, putrefied and obscene face in the mirror, so it called the mirror grubby and obscene. Even though decades have passed since the mirror has been buried in mud in Lahore, it still haunts the self-righteous, pure people who fear to look at it, for the mirror is one of its kind – it presents the real image. The real, abhorrent image of the society that we do not want to see.

Recently, the mirror has once again resurfaced, this time in the shape of Aurat March that has faced exactly the same response as Manto did, by exactly the same segment of bigoted, religious fanatics who harassed Manto, for committing exactly the same crime as Manto did. The same court petitions, dragging organizers to courts to stop women from marching, the same labels of “vulgar”, “obscene” and “fahash”, the same restlessness. How can these women be so obscene that they out rightly tell men not to send them unsolicited private pictures? How can these women be so vulgar to openly ask for the autonomy over their bodies in this myopic patriarchal society? How dare they, just like Manto, call out on the double standards of the society and blare against the cherished norms of the people of the “land of pure”. How obscene can one be to ask for the pious rapists to be tried in courts against the “fahash” victim, when they ought to be acquitted – BA-IZAT BARRI. Such insolent women, can’t they sit peacefully at homes and get harassed and beaten up by their male relatives than to be harassed by strangers on streets and in offices, isn’t the former one better, at least the “chaddar and char-deewari” remains intact. How dare these vulgar women get raped in their graves? Can’t they be buried in appropriate “kaffan” because if they wear inappropriate shroud isn’t it obvious they will get raped? Silly women chanting obscene slogans in the land of pure, should learn from children and animals who maintain silence after getting raped. How dare these women chant such bold slogans, when men only harass and rape them politely; no one ever finds out. How dare these women ask men to heat up their own food, after all they only get light beatings and their noses chopped off for not doing so. Imbeciles!

The future of this new mirror remains uncertain, but what is certain is the fact that it will keep reappearing in one way or the other until the society musters the strength to look it in the eye. A society that is lost in the quagmire of identity crisis, is easily influenced by propaganda and concocted conspiracy theories. A society that is incapable of introspection has little ability to resolves the problems facing it. Brushing aside the real issues of masses, whether social or political, under the rubric of “foreign” and “western” agenda, is not the way of dealing with it rather it makes the situation graver as the aggrieved party feels alienated. Until the injustice within the society is dealt with, especially towards the marginalized segment such as women, the words of Manto will continue to haunt us, making the name the obscurantists desperately wanted to remove altogether forever eternal. As for the “lighter sleepers” like myself, whom Manto jolted and roused, we are bound to suffer the “agony of irrevocable death” in this parochial, disease-ridden society. Alas, ignorance is bliss.

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