Aurat March, Media And The Moral Panic

Aurat March, Media And The Moral Panic
Humaira Masihuddin writes about media's role in the debate surrounding the Aurat March where vile and inappropriate remarks were aired by the opponents of the march. The media shoulders the sole responsibility for generating this kind of dangerous confrontation.

Much has been written, tweeted, posted and discussed about the annual Aurat March of 8th March. Parliament resounded with speeches on the subject. Petitions were filed in in the superior courts of the country to get stay orders for the march not to proceed, while the hysteria surrounding a mundane annual event reached a divisive and ugly climax when a well known  playwright Khalil ur Rehman Qamar and a journalist and commentator Marvi Sirmed exchanged harsh words during a show where Rehman used abusive and misogynistic remarks against Sirmed.

The horrifying spectacle of foul and abusive language that was employed by a writer and poet was received with much criticism while support for this aggressive outburst was also witnessed on social media. Public discourse has seen a constant downward spiral but was the latest display of crass and crude language going to be the NEW NORMAL many wondered.

Suddenly, a major part of the population was embroiled in a bitter debate about values, social norms and even religion. All and sundry took to the social media to comment for and against what the Aurat March and the accompanying slogans actually stand for. While debating issues is a healthy activity such kind of posturing where one party campaigning for fundamental rights is castigated as enemies of the social order and labeled as parasites, funded, agents of foreign agenda has serious implications for the rights movement and it will further impact on a fractured polity that Pakistan is increasingly becoming.

Needless to say, the media shoulders the sole responsibility for generating this kind of dangerous confrontation. In the age of the media there has been a massive digital invasion of the population. Academicians who engage in media studies have for long debated and discussed the subversive role of the media. Reiner (2007) has identified that the main public anxieties surrounding media is that it is a subtle form of social control and a source of exaggeration and misrepresentation.

Instead of resorting to accurate reporting, imparting a deeper understanding of issues, enumerating and explaining both sides of a debate media has been seen to obfuscate issues and create confusion and chaos.

Chinball (1977) identified a number of imperatives that drive the functioning of the media and the editorial decisions in choosing what to print and broadcast among them he rightly points out that it is immediacy, dramatisation, personalization, simplification, titillation etc. which determine newsworthiness.

Like media elsewhere, Pakistani media is also driven by the above factors but the creation of periodic moral panics first analysed by Stanly Cohen seem to have become a staple diet for the country’s media.

A typical moral panic is created very methodically in a step by step fashion firstly by identifying something or someone as a threat to the values or interests of society (in this case the Aurat March), this threat is then simplified in terms so that it is easily recognised by the public (confusing people on what the slogans could mean even implying that using of academic phrases like pidrana nizam/ patriarchy are somehow a grievous wrong), there is then a rapid and speedy build-up of public concern, opinion makers, community leaders, thought controllers are then brought in to further dilate upon the issue and engage in debate. And ltimately, the authorities get involved to address this created public issue and action against the perceived threat is then taken.

This is how a simple exercise undertaken universally by women and a great number of men walking in the name of humanity to highlight certain issues suddenly become a threat to the whole society.

In this case our media succeeded in creating one of its periodic moral panics, but this time to the great detriment of not only women but to the detriment of society at large. It has literally drawn battle lines between groups. This calls for some serious introspection for all the media houses while we, the citizens, brace ourselves for the next wave of moral panic created by our media.