‘Vigil-Aunties’ in a Pakistani park: The Maya Khan controversy

Morning show host Maya Khan was severely criticized, and ultimately fired, for leading a “moral raid” on couples sitting in a public park in Karachi. While the Pakistani media’s reaction to this event is seen as a victory for Pakistani liberals, the attitude embodied by the vigilantes is something to remain wary of, for this is just one example of how cultural norms can use shaming to dictate ownership of women’s bodies and limit their agencies.
For an episode of her show, Maya Khan assembled a team of women who accompanied her to the park to seek out ‘wayward’ young couples and embarrass them on camera–especially the young women–for violating their parents’ trust. They spotted and accosted these unsuspecting couples, demanding to see their marriage certificate if the young man and woman claimed to be husband and wife. If the couple admitted they were not married, the talk show host and her friends accused the men of tarnishing the woman’s reputation and the woman for betraying her parents’ trust. In between confrontations, the crew of “vigil-aunties” maintained an ongoing dialogue about how serious it is for a family to not know their daughter’s whereabouts while they met surreptitiously with men in a public park, making it an unfit place for families.

The episode of the show was met with outrage for a number of reasons. An opinion piece in Dawn pointed out the dichotomy within Pakistan’s “urban bourgeoisie” that either spouts “loud moralistic clichés” or loses itself in a delirium of hedonistic entertainment. Journalists also criticised Khan for only targeting couples belonging to the lower or middle class by selecting the park as the scene for confrontation; wealthier couples typically choose posh restaurants or cafes as rendezvous spots. Mehreen Kasana’s open letter to Maya Khan pointed out that moral policing is both invasive and harmful. If Khan was truly concerned about the well-being of women in Pakistani society, Kasana continued, it would be more worthwhile to devote energy to sex education and teach women how to protect themselves.

It is worth noting that Khan’s stunt is a manifestation of a latent, but pervasive, attitude about women’s bodies—the men and women who assume the right to dictate what comprises “moral” behavior. Too often, in these instances, “morality” is no more than a shorthand for a way of conduct whose idealizations take sexist forms. Khan and her team implied that they deferred to social codes—codes where family reputations hinge on the basis of women’s perceived piety–with the women’s best interests in heart. Fittingly enough, by treating those norms as gospel, they simply reinforce them. They effectively become the “people” in the ubiquitous concern about “what will people say” that pervades norms and attitudes that presume ownership of women.

After she refused to issue an unconditional apology, Khan was ultimately fired from Samaa TV, the channel that aired her show, an act hailed as a “victory for Pakistani liberals.” Khan’s public shaming and firing may be a victory, but we still have to contend with institutionalized moral policing that curtails individual privacies and freedoms, whether it be the Saudi Arabian mutaween prowling for unmarried couples or the French morality police enforcing President Sarkozy’s niqab ban. Unsurprisingly, on both ends of the spectrum, women, far more than their male counterparts, are seen as being prey to extreme ‘liberal’ or ‘religious’ ideals, and they are treated as vulnerable beings to be protected from such heinous tendencies.
(Photo Credit: The Express Tribune Blogs)

Sarah Farrukh completed her BSc in Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences and is currently a Masters of Information student at the University of Toronto. She writes about faith and books at amuslimahwrites.wordpress.com.

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