Balochistan is back in the news. Over beards. Or rather their ‘fashionable’ styling. Two of the province’s districts — Omraha and Kharan — have taken the lead, banning the practice before backtracking. Sort of.
The story goes something like this. The authorities issued the directive at the behest of a cleric. The contention, according to the latter, was that barbers were styling beards. This, the cleric believed, was against Islamic norms. Ultimately, the written order was withdrawn on the grounds that there is no existing law covering the policing of men and their beards. Nonetheless, the Kharan assistant commissioner admitted that barbers were verbally instructed to refrain from the practice. Yet we must ask: if there is no specific law — on what grounds was this communicated?
Sadly, we already know the answer.
We have been here before. Many times. There was the Enlightened Moderation era when the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) were elected to the NWFP assembly, while forming a coalition government in Balochistan. Back then, this democratically elected six-party religious alliance acted as a de facto vice and virtue faction, banning, amongst other things, men from wearing western clothing. There’s nothing quite like an equal offender. Of course, at the time the country was reeling from the US military misadventure next door in Afghanistan meaning that anti-American sentiment was running high and which, to a large extent, explained the MMA electoral wins. Fast-forward just a few years and we saw the Taliban’s draconian control of Swat, which did its best to put an end to girls going to school. Those who dared to contravene the ‘orders’ saw their schools blown up. Or else found themselves with a near fatal bullet to the head.
Presently, the verbal ban on beards in Balochistan represents the same side of the very same coin. It simply underscores how Pakistan continues to battle the religious right from all sides. Whether from a democratically elected government or an extremist group that makes a mockery of the government’s writ or, indeed, a democratic set-up that is afraid of the consequences of not kowtowing to the mullahs in the face of ISIS gains in the province.
The reason that the beards are important is this: there is nothing perhaps more alarming than when the state retreats over the religious right’s policing of men and their bodies. For it suggests that the battle is almost lost. All we can do is count on our men in khaki to keep good on their promise of robbing the Islamic State of gaining any foothold whatsoever in Balochistan.*