Parts of the blogosphere appear to be in a tizzy over a recent parody of Roy Orbison’s classic “Oh, Pretty Woman.” Now a hit on YouTube, Saad Haroon’s “Burqa Woman,” tells the story of a young man’s fumbling attempt to woo a woman in abaya and niqab, who, after much cajoling, reciprocates amorously via text message. Modern technology appears to connect the two lovers in a country where public displays of affection and mixed social gatherings are generally frowned upon.
Saad Haroon is a Pakistani comedian, actor, writer and the creator of two improvisational comedy troupes “BlackFish” and “SHARK.” He is also the brain behind “The Real News,” a satiric news show for Pakistani audiences. “Burqa Woman” is meant to be a precursor to an upcoming TV show about stand-up comedians, which will likely help the freshman show draw viewers if all the controversy surrounding the video is right, content notwithstanding.
The music video, in which Haroon parodies a man in love, makes several tongue-in-cheek comments about the value of the niqab in a society burdened by vapid Talibanization and (as the video attempts to show) the ensuing hypocrisy of those who appear “devoid of sin.” As a result, the video has received hoards of comments online (669 on last count), both in favor and against.
There are those who profess to love the video, calling it “a brilliant bit of social satire,” while others are insulted by what they perceive is an attack on Islamic values and morals. Others feel he may have further damaged Pakistan’s image abroad. On the whole, Haroon appears happy with this artistic contribution, “He was pleased his video had received supportive comments and started a debate about whether the burka had any place in Muslim society.”
In reality, more and more women in Pakistan have taken to wearing the abaya-niqab combo, commonly referenced as hijab or burqa in public. Tiny boutiques have cropped up in most major cities catering to this burgeoning niche in modest women’s clothing. Ironically, it is young lower-middle class women, those entering secondary schools, colleges and universities, who choose to wear the burqa while elderly women in Pakistan can still be seen to wear the simple “chador” of decades past.
Although the primary focus of the video remains the question of the burqa, with criticisms lambasting the video, could freedom of speech be at the heart of the controversy? Freedom of speech is guaranteed by the constitution of Pakistan; however, speaking out against Islam, particularly any untoward criticism of its prophets or desecration of the Qur’an, carries harsh penalties, including death. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have once again come under the limelight with Asia Bibi sentenced to death for allegedly making disparaging remarks about Prophet Mohammed. Facebook and YouTube have also been known to disappear when the government feels it necessary—for instance, when cartoons of the Prophet were published online earlier in the year.
Ultimately, should the discussion with respect to “Burqa Woman” focus on modesty and rights of women or whether an open, mature and objective discussion on socially sensitive issues like these can ever take place in a country where burgeoning intolerance is further exasperated by an outdated and almost irrelevant educational system? How are people expected to find solutions to modern day issues in a highly globalized, fast-paced environment when critical thinking is discouraged and conformity is expected? It is therefore no surprise when a video like Haroon’s calls for a “stoning” and not for what would amount to a non-violent method of communication: a “dialogue.” Viewer’s opinions therefore on “Burqa Woman” are rightfully expected, whether in support or against, but a threat of violence for voicing an opinion is no solution.
Merium Kazmi has a background in Development Policy and has worked with UNDP Bahrain in several capacities. Having returned to Pakistan after a long absence, she spends her time reading, writing and making sense of a place she still calls home. This piece originally appeared at Muslimah Media Watch.