Farah Ghuznavi draws on her experiences as a development professional for inspiration in her writing, and remains an unrepentant idealist. She has worked for NGOs in Bangladesh, Britain and Africa, as well as with the United Nations, and the Grameen Bank, famous for its collateral-free loans to poor women. Her work has been featured in magazines and anthologies in the UK, US, Singapore and Bangladesh. She is the editor of Lifelines: New Writing from Bangladesh, which is available from Zubaan Books and Amazon. A version of this article was originally posted in The Daily Star and is re-posted with permission.
Some time ago, I found myself laughing out loud while reading an article about how French MPs were considering overturning the ban on women wearing trousers in Paris. I hadn’t even known that such a ban existed! And it was only now that they were going to discuss removing that prohibition? Talk about being behind the times – apparently, trousers are even considered mandatory attire for modern-day policewomen in the city.
Ironically enough, this curious rule was first introduced in late 1799 by the Police Chief of Paris, and it stipulated that any woman wishing to “dress like a man” had to seek special permission from the city’s main police station. Given his evident prejudices, one can only wonder what that long-deceased gentleman would make of contemporary policewomen’s uniforms.
In 1892, the law was relaxed due to an amendment which permitted the use of trousers as long as the woman wearing them was holding the reins of a horse; in 1909, the lawmakers’ generosity went further, extending to women who were either “on a bicycle or holding it by the handlebars”! In 1969, the Paris council asked the city’s Police Chief to invalidate the decree, but he refused to do so on the grounds that “unforeseen variations in fashion” might lead to a resurgence of anti-trouser attitudes. Given that the archaic law has survived repeated attempts to repeal it, one must wish this initiative better luck than its predecessors.
But if such absurd laws seem laughable at times, the reality of police attitudes pertaining to women in many parts of the world – and not just with respect to their clothing (though this is an important issue and one that we will be returning to later in the article) – is all too often a more serious matter. Saudi Arabia’s strict laws against women driving, for example, are enthusiastically enforced by the members of its police force. Perhaps more enthusiastically than actually required, as evidenced by the case of Shaima Jastaina, who got behind the wheel to protest the law and became a symbol of the country’s harsh treatment of women who refuse to conform to its regressive policies. She was sentenced to a punishment of ten lashes for her “transgression”.
A few weeks later, Princess Ameerah, the wife of the King’s influential nephew, tweeted that the King had pardoned Jastaniah. The news was received with enormous relief and assumed to be true. But within three months, Jastaniah’s professor from her time studying in the US found out that her former student was to be flogged in spite of the King’s pardon. The arbitrariness of the judicial system became all too evident, as the police informed Jastaniah that notwithstanding the pardon, she was scheduled to receive the ten lashes as a punishment for daring to drive.
As her lawyers went into overdrive and her supporters held their breath, good news arrived from an unexpected source. After going to the Jeddah Police Department to be fingerprinted, Jastaniah was informed that her flogging sentence had been dropped. She was told that this was not in any way a response to the petition filed by her lawyers – or the international attention that the case had received – but because the police department had filed a supposedly routine petition for pardon which was accepted. This of course begs the question as to why the police department could not simply have accepted the King’s pardon, which one would assume to be non-negotiable. The whole thing sounds suspiciously like a face-saving exercise by the Saudi police, who also took pains to warn Jastaniah that she now had a police record, and would most definitely be flogged if she were to try to drive again.
As for the apologists who often make a point of stating that lawbreakers must be punished, they should perhaps remember that no law is immutable. In human history, legislation has been introduced time and again to accommodate changing social attitudes. And that is just as well – otherwise the segregationist laws in the United States that held sway less than 100 years ago, or the apartheid system in South Africa just a couple of decades ago would never have been challenged or changed. After all, in both those systems, unjust and discriminatory laws were brutally reinforced for many years, with severe crackdowns on any dissenting voices. And it is precisely those dissenting voices, which refused to be silenced, that have brought about much-needed changes in legislation.
So while the police are undoubtedly tasked with implementing the law, it’s worth bearing in mind that the manner in which they do so is often well within their own hands – as we know from the example of our own country. Law enforcement agencies are undoubtedly allowed some degree of latitude in implementation. Often, it is their personal beliefs and attitudes that flavour their actions on the street; and that is critical, because it is often that grey area of “moral perspectives” that will determine whether or not those on the receiving end of police action are treated fairly.
In neighbouring India, a commendable initiative undertaken by the media organisation, Tehelka, recently uncovered some disturbing attitudes within the Delhi-NCR police. The extent of misogyny was evident in the results, and as one article analysed, even their responses as to why rapes take place indicate how far the Indian police force – alongside the others in the region – has to go before it can lay any claim to modernity, let alone progressive policing!
To give just a few examples, these men who are entrusted with ensuring the safety of the public, attributed the high number of rape cases in Delhi to factors such as the tired excuse that unless women are covered from head to toe, men somehow can’t “resist” raping them. If women “display themselves” by wearing anything other than a shalwar kameez or sari, then according to Sub-Inspector Arjun Singh, SHO of Surajpur Police Station: “She is dressed in a manner that people get attracted to her. In fact, she wants them to do something to her.” Is this man serious?! Yes, apparently he is.
As are his equally ignorant, misogynistic and medieval-minded colleagues, such as Yogender Singh Tomar, Additional SHO, Sector 39, Noida. Asked if it was easy for a rape victim to approach the police, he replied: “It’s never easy for the victim. Everyone is scared of humiliation. Everyone’s wary of media and society. In reality, the ones who complain are only those who have turned rape into a business”! By this impeccable logic then, if you have “really” been raped, you will never complain – because of the shame and vilification that we all know will follow. So if you choose to risk that, you have no shame and were clearly not “really” raped, but are in fact in the “business” of rape.
His twisted justification is oddly reminiscent of the medieval witch-hunts where women would be accused of casting the evil eye and “tested” in order to prove their guilt. In one version of this process, a woman would be weighed down with rocks and thrown into deep water. If she managed to stay afloat, it was clear proof that she was a witch; if she sank, she had been wrongfully accused. But of course, either way, death was the inevitable outcome – whether it was death by stoning, burning or drowning.
In parts of the world, “police protection” has become an oxymoron. So in the end, it’s well worth heeding the advice of the UK police special advisor Dr Samuel Johnston, who spoke of the importance of communities in assisting the police to do a better job. As he pointed out, policing is too serious a business to leave to the police alone – especially in countries where regressive and misogynistic views remain widespread.
(photo of Delhi Tourist Police officers from public domain via Wikimedia Commons)