Recently I was entering Jeelani Park in Lahore, Punjab, when the guard blocked my way with his metal detector. "Shorts are not allowed here," he told me. "I always wear these for jogging. When was the ban put in place?" I asked. "A few weeks ago. They should be lower than your knees," he replied. That marked the first time I have been denied entrance to one of the biggest parks in this teeming provincial capital due to the way I was dressed.
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Famous for its artificial waterfall and horse-riding classes, the family park is a popular spot for sporty types from badminton players to joggers in typical runners' attire. In fact, wearing shorts and sneakers at the park was normal until Islamist political party Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYR)
held a sit-in in Lahore last month. It was their second-biggest gathering after a similar event in November 2017, when the party brought the capital Islamabad to a grinding halt for 22 days as it called for Sharia to be imposed and all blasphemers to be executed. Their targets included Asia Bibi
, a Christian woman who was sentenced to death by hanging in 2010 after she argued with a group of Muslim women with whom she had been harvesting berries. They later accused her of insulting the prophet Muhammad. However, the park's newly imposed dress code will not only change the outlook of Lahore, popularly known as the heart of Pakistan, but will leave deep scars imprinted on its soul. The problem with these restrictions is that they keep being expanded, and now there seems to be no turning back. This is not the first such blow that has been dealt to the city, a cultural hub that hosts most of the major arts events, traditional food fairs, festivals, music concerts, film-making projects and evening theaters in the country. In 2005, the Supreme Court imposed a strict ban on the Basant Kite Festival of Punjab after a number of incidents occurred where dangerous materials — including crushed glass and glue — were used in the threads of the kites, resulting in the death of some onlookers and passers-by. But in its heyday, this spring festival was truly a sight to behold — a joyous occasion when the sky would become filled with color and movement. I remember seeing women in bright yellow dresses enjoying the music and the early spring winds with male relations on their rooftops. Even Indian celebrities used to visit the city to celebrate this centuries-old tradition. In 2013, a plan to revive Punjab's greatest festival was dropped after the militant group Jamat-ud-Dawa (Jud) claimed it was un-Islamic. As such, laws that had been put in place to ensure public safety slowly began to sprout religious roots. The ban was due to be lifted in time for last year's festival but sadly remains in place. Meanwhile, numerous monuments and venues in the city that were named after Hindus or Christians have been "rebranded" with Muslim names over the last few decades. The Lawrence Gardens next to Lahore Zoo are now known as Bagh-e-Jinnah ("Jinnah's Garden" in Punjabi); Dharampura market, originally established as an almshouse for Hindus in the 16th century, has been renamed Mustafabad; and what is now referred to as Jeelani Park used to be called Race Course Park. However, local people rarely use these new names for places their elders have known and visited for years if not decades. My argument is not against branding them as Islamic; rather, I am opposed to any measures that threaten the preservation of our cultural heritage and way of life, as we have known it for decades. Of equal if not more concern is how so many countries in South Asia have gained a reputation over the years for being overly conservative regarding the use of sports uniforms by female athletes, who face a number of daunting challenges. For example, in 2005 a group of fundamentalist clerics issued fatwas, or religious decisions, against Grand Slam-winning Indian tennis player Sania Mirza. Why? Because she had dared to wear short skirts on court, a perfectly normal form of attire for women tennis players on the international circuit. However the clerics deemed these "un-Islamic" and "corrupting," and saw them as posing a threat to their views. They threatened to prevent Mirza from playing if she did not conform by wearing what they considered to be more "decent" clothing. Female footballers in Pakistan have faced a similar backlash for wearing shorts. Personally, I could never imagine the "empowered" men of our patriarchal society being slammed for their choice of sportswear, especially in the arena of professional sports. Damage done
There are many examples of how such faith-based branding has caused immense harm. The streets of Heera Mandi, formerly known as the Diamond Market, bear witness to this logic. The area was once a famous red-light district located behind Lahore Fort at the northern end of the Walled City. During the Mughal era in the 15th and 16th centuries the market served as a hub of tawaif
(concubine or high-class courtesan) culture for the city's elite, somewhat akin to the geisha culture of Japan. Foreigners especially liked to visit the neighborhood to see a classical dance performance known as mujra. Traditionally passed down from mothers to daughters, over time in Lahore it became a blend of art and exotic dancing, and is still popular at weddings and bachelor parties today. Yet it, too, faced a crackdown in the 1980s under the rule of former president Zia ul-Haq. The general's military regime launched a series of operations against dance houses that were viewed as dens of iniquity and prostitution. This was part of a broader move to implement Sharia, considered one of the strictest interpretations of the Quran. Today, the market showcases a wide range of khussas
(traditional Mughal footwear made by artisans) and shops selling musical instruments. The flesh trade didn't disappear or die out — it simply migrated to other parts of the city. Other efforts by Muslim leaders to clean up the city have also met with mixed results. Kasur, for example, a district near Lahore, is now notorious for the thousands of child molestation cases that have surfaced after pedophiles began to gravitate there. In fact, Pakistan now has the 11th-highest rate of child sexual abuse in the world
, as I reported earlier this year. Again, I am not calling for the Islamic Republic to set up red-light districts. I am simply asking the authorities to avoid acting like the "ghairat brigade," an honor corps that famously tried to silence debate on extremist ideology to protect the image of Islam. In Pakistan, this is now used as a satirical term for hypocrites who remain watchful of other people's morals and religious standards while not necessarily adhering to those same codes themselves. But law-abiding men and women in Pakistan should not have to obtain certificates testifying to their good character from some authority or other, especially a religious party. Clerics have no business tampering with the country's already fragile social fabric, making people slave to their whims. Only Pakistan's parliament carries the mandate to pass laws. Back to my original point, it has been scientifically proved that regular exercise, including jogging, yields a raft of health benefits — putting people in a good place physically, mentally and possibly even morally. Perhaps it is time for these clerics to lace up and join us for a jog around the park to help them put things in perspective and reboot their brains. Kamran Chaudhry is a Catholic commentator in Lahore.