Challenge the old order

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Challenge the old order

Tuesday, 10 March 2020 | markandey katju

It would be presumptuous to think that the Aurat march will cause a major change in the lives of Pakistani women. But it is a step in the right direction

Imaan mujhe roke hai, jo khenche hai mujhe kufr. Kaaba merey peeche hai, kaleesa merey age,” goes a couplet by the renowned poet Mirza Ghalib. We in the Indian subcontinent are living in a transitional era. The passage from a feudal agricultural society to a modern industrial one. At present, we are neither totally feudal nor modern but somewhere in between. A transitional era is a very painful period in society, full of turbulence and strife. If we read the history of Europe when it was passing through its transition from feudal to modern society, that is roughly from the 16th to the 18th centuries, we find that this period was full of turmoil, wars, revolutions, chaotic conditions, intellectual ferment and so on. It was only after going through this fire that modern society emerged in Europe. The Indian subcontinent is presently going through this fire. We are going through a very painful period in our history, which I guess will last another 15-20 years ( it won’t last 300 years, as it did in Europe, because the pace of history has speeded up in view of technical advances). For what is a historic transition? It is a period when the old society is being totally uprooted and torn apart. Can this happen peacefully? One wishes it could but historical experience shows otherwise. The vested interests in the old order always put up a fierce resistance to any fundamental change in the existing social and political order as they feel their interests may be endangered thereby.

One feature of a transitional era is a clash of values. Every social order has its moral and social code, which is destroyed in a great upheaval and replaced by another code. But in the intervening period, that is, in the transitional era, while old values are being challenged and eroded (for instance the caste system, religious fundamentalism, arranged marriages and so on) new values have not yet been put in their place. The whole of society becomes topsy-turvey. As Shakespeare said in Macbeth, “Fair is foul and foul is fair.” In other words, what was regarded good earlier (like the caste system and arranged marriages) is being regarded outdated by the enlightened sections of society (who are against the caste system and in favour of love marriages).

The same is happening in the Indian subcontinent. Modern minded people are challenging casteism, communalism, superstitions, and feudal beliefs and practices. The Aurat (woman) march and its opposition, the Haya (modesty) march, must be seen in this historical context. While the former represents a progressive force in history which seeks to emancipate women and take society forward, the latter represents a reactionary force, which wants to preserve the status quo in society, that is, the feudal values of patriarchy and subordination of women to men.

Mirza Ghalib’s couplet, quoted at the beginning of this article, depicts this situation. In that sher, as in much of Urdu poetry, words are not to be interpreted literally but metaphorically or figuratively. The word “kaaba” in it represents feudal society, while the word “kaleesa” represents modern society. Ghalib wants us to reject feudalism and move forward to a modern society. The transitional era in history is also depicted in a marvel of condensation in the following sher of Firaq Gorakhpuri. “Har zarre par ek kaifiyat-e-neemshabi hai. Ai saaqi-e-dauraan yeh gunaahon ki ghadi hai.” Here the expression “kaifiyat-e-neemshabi” indicates that we are living in an era which is neither night nor day but somewhere in between. In other words, the old social order is partially gone but the new order is not yet in place. Also, the expression “gunaahon ki ghadi” means it is an age of sins. Sins against what? Sins against the old (feudal) code. For instance, the old code required one to marry within one’s own caste and religion and to someone arranged by one’s parents. But the enlightened sections in society are challenging this. The old code required a woman to accept her status as inferior to that of men and always obey the husband but now many women, such as those who participated in the Aurat march, are challenging this and demand equality with men.

It would be presumptuous to think that the Aurat march by itself will cause a fundamental change in the lives of Pakistani women. That will only happen after a revolution, which is many years ahead and will only be attained after a long, arduous struggle against the reactionary elements, in which tremendous sacrifices have to be made. But Aurat march marks an awakening of women, without which no revolution is possible (like the march to Versailles of the Paris women in October 1789, or the demonstrations of the women of St Petersburg on International Women’s Day in Russia which culminated in the February Revolution of 1917). Hence it is of historical significance. No doubt some serious mistakes were made in it, like giving the slogan “mera jism, meri marzi (my body, my wish)” which is liable to be misconstrued and gave ammunition to reactionary elements opposed to women’s emancipation like Maulana Rehman to create public opinion against the march. But mistakes are made in every progressive movement. The important thing is to learn from them and correct them. I am sure my brave sisters of Pakistan will do it. Long live the progressive Aurat march. Down with the reactionary Haya march.

      (The writer is a former judge of the Supreme Court of India)

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