The role of Islam in Pakistani public life is fiercely fought over, especially in areas that are home to non-Muslim communities. One example is Punjab province, where most Pakistani Christians, as well as much of Pakistan’s Hindu minority, live.
Punjab Higher Education Minister Syed Raza Ali Gilani was last month (14 Mar) forced to make a U-turn after announcing in a public ceremony that wearing the hijab would be “compulsory” and female students would be awarded 5 per cent extra marks for doing so.
However the Punjab government immediately rejected the news in the strongest terms, obliging the minister to backtrack. A spokesman tweeted:
“5% marks for Hijab students is absolutely WRONG news… Academic excellence only based on MERIT.. It’s clear policy of the Govt of Punjab.”
— Govt Of The Punjab (@GovtOfPunjab) March 14, 2017
The next day, the hijab issue was raised in the Punjab Assembly. Assembly member Nabila Hakim Ali, who belongs to the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party run by former cricketer Imran Khan, submitted a resolution in the Punjab Assembly that:
“The assembly demands from the Punjab government that [the] hijab must be made mandatory in public and private schools for girls, and the girls who observe it be given extra marks.”
Minutes later, Mrs Hakim Ali retracted her resolution by tabling another resolution in the assembly:
“This assembly demands from the Punjab government that [the] hijab must not be made mandatory in public and private educational institutions, nor they be tempted by offering extra marks.”
Kashif Aslam, of the Catholic National Commission on Justice and Peace programme office, told World Watch Monitor that the situation exposed how confused the nation is about the role of religion in the public sphere, especially when it comes to educational institutions.
Aslam, who found this confusion replicated in Pakistani textbooks in research he carried out last year, said that prior to elections, parties may choose to appear more religious to attract votes. However, he said there is a limit to that approach and that politicians sometimes jump into things before realising the gravity of their actions.
“Also, there is an effort to reform the country, but this [the short-lived hijab proposal] is like one step forward and two steps back,” he added.