Escape under the Veil

Lifestyle changes in Pakistan's business metropolis. More and more women from Karachi's upper class have become followers of an Islamic woman preacher and have started wearing the veil. Manuela Kessler reports

​​Karachi. Women's apparel has served as a longstanding symbol of Karachi's openness. The preferred dress among women in the city has been the Shalwar Kamez, a long tunic over white pants, which is cut to enhance one's figure to a greater extent than even women's clothing worn in India.

High society women have no qualms about showing up at parties in sleeveless blouses and skin-tight pants. The inhabitants of the Pakistani business metropolis are proud that their lifestyle differs from that of the rest of the country.

Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, still holds a place of honor in his native city, not least because he aimed at creating a modern country for Muslims on the subcontinent. The politician, who during his lifetime was branded as "the great unbeliever" as a result of his love for whiskey and pork, found the idea of a theocratic state as an anathema.

Karachi – a city that never sleeps

Since the military dictatorship of Zia ul-Haq, who ruled Pakistan from 1977 to 1988 and instituted a strict policy of Islamisation, Karachi has been without alcohol, casinos, bars, or pool halls. Yet, the joie de vivre and hospitality remain. The city of 14 million never sleeps. Guests are invited for 9 PM and leave long after midnight. Those who can afford it, send their children, boys as well as girls, to study abroad in the West.

Now, however, an opposite trend can be observed. Increasing numbers of educated women from the best of families, in other words, women who are normally emancipated and opposed to the demands of Islamists, are voluntarily donning the headscarf, and even opting for the all-covering burka. Chiefly responsible for this phenomena is a woman preacher by the name of Farhat Hashmi, a Glasgow-educated scholar.

Hundreds of women can be seen waiting on her every word at any one of her Koran seminars, typically offered at five-star hotels. The self-appointed preacher is a star. Her Al-Huda Foundation, established in 1994 with the goal of propagating "pure Islamic morals and attitudes," is already active in eight countries, including the USA and Britain. Yet, nowhere has Farhat Hashmi been so successful as in Karachi.

The organization recently moved its headquarters here to a magnificent villa, which was donated by the family of one of its members.

Holistic spiritual experience

"Madam," as the followers of Farhat Hashmi call her, employs contemporary methods in propagating Islam. She makes her interpretation of the faith accessible to her women followers in English and with the aid of PowerPoint presentations.

Her foundation publishes CDs of the Koran, complete with religious instructions translated into her followers' native languages, rather that in the Arabic original. The goal is to provide a holistic personal, spiritual experience, says Farhat Hashmi.

"The transformation begins with ourselves," she preaches. She offers motivation to her followers, who typically enjoy plenty of money and free time, but lack any serious social commitment. Critics in Pakistan regard Al-Huda more as a reaction against a wild lifestyle of partying, while others dismiss the group as nothing but a "new-age" phenomenon.

Need for spiritual leadership, lack of alternatives

The explanation as to why Farhat Hashmi has found such resonance among the leading societal circles of Karachi is that there is simply a lack of alternatives in Pakistan. "Over the past 58 years since independence, the expectations of the Muslim population have been disappointed," she says. "Many people feel betrayed and desperate. Not even once have the Islamic parties honestly addressed the fears of the population. Our people are longing for spiritual leadership."

Kamal Siddiqi, a well-known journalist with the English language newspaper "The News," regards it as worrying that, in their disorientation, educated Pakistani woman are choosing to hide under the burka.

Farhat Hashmi, by contrast, holds this to be the only proper choice. She encourages her followers to "conform to Islamic teachings by coving up their beauty to protect themselves against the evil gaze of men."

Modern, female, very conservative Islam

According to independent observers, Al-Huda, which translates as "guidance," promotes a very conservative version of Islam, even though it employs modern teaching methods and has drawn the wrath of those fundamentalist preachers claiming a male monopoly on interpreting the Koran.

Yet, it is not as if Farhat Hashmi is presenting an alternative female interpretation. She even recommends that her followers let their husbands marry a second wife, "so that other sisters can profit" from the teachings.

Manuela Kessler

© Tages-Anzeiger/ 2005

Translated from the German by Aingela Flanagan

This article was previously published in the Swiss daily Tages-Anzeiger.

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