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How Khalilur Rehman’s Act Of Abusing Me On TV Normalised Objectification Of Women

Marvi Sirmed writes about the hateful discourse against organisers and participants of Aurat March and the backlash against slogan ‘mera jism meri marzi’ which she experienced during a talk show when playwright Khalilur Rehman Qamar hurled abuse at her.

Celebration of International Women’s Day has been at least a forty years old tradition in Pakistan. Every year, women used to take to the streets and reiterate their quest for equal political, social and economic rights. The first time when I heard of this day, I was in primary school and my mother was preparing for a demonstration in Lahore. I can also vividly recall the discomfort of the men and women of our family with the idea of my mother joining these ‘maghrib-zadah’ (westernised) women ‘who have no respect for religion and Pakistani culture’; who ‘want to break every home’; who ‘have no regard for our family values’, etc.

For decades, it remained comparatively a low-key event with a sometimes angry, sometimes aggressive and sometimes passive aggressive demeanor of the participants. Women’s movement back then, however, had many strong women spearheading the resistance and steering us, the younger lot, through the harshest of the times under military dictatorship. This was the time when a peaceful demonstration and even the most benign slogans could mean manhandling, beating, torture and detentions at the hands of the military.

One wonders, how much of it has changed today?  Not very much it seems. The only thing changed is latent anger and aggressiveness of women, which has skyrocketed after all these decades of neglect and subjugation. Last year’s Aurat March marked the new wave feminism in Pakistan that made its onset felt with zest. Women came out in droves and expressed themselves through witty, spunky and provocative slogans. Slogans, that hit exactly where they had meant to – the fragile underbelly of patriarchy, the inherent insecurities of toxic masculinity.

It was a rare occasion when women went beyond asking for reforms, equal opportunities and access to justice. Through creative expression and satire, they mocked male privilege and scorned at gender roles and stereotypes. For weeks after the march, Pakistan’s media could not come out of the shock and went on with their verbose vituperations against the participants of Aurat March, targeting some slogans that women had used. These ‘controversial’ slogans included, Mera Jism Meri Marzi (my body my choice); Happily Divorced; apna khaana khud garm karo (warm your own food); etc.

This year, the invective began even before the march. Pre-empting the slogans and tenor of march participants, TV channels started airing hastily conceived shows on the march and slogans from the past year. In one such program, I happened to join a panel that included an ultra-conservative playwright alongside a Senator from religious party JUI-F. Responding to my repetition of the slogan, Mera Jism Meri Marzi, Mr Khalilur Rehman Qamar, the playwright, burst into expletives and choicest insults from his ‘dicktionary’ (another placard from last year, which irked the male sensibilities). While a wide range of noted personalities from almost all walks of life – actors, singers, professionals, lawyers, journalists, students, teachers, sportswomen – expressed their shock, there has been steady stream of hate speech and continual abuse directed against me. Much of the anger, going by a large number of tweets, was because in their view I have provoked the man into abusing me.

During his diatribe, he went on to say things like, ‘whatever is your body? no one would even spit on it’, ‘do takay ki aurat’ (a woman worth two pennies), etc. There he seemed to have struck a chord with masculine insecurities. What followed was barrage of similar insults using slut-shaming slang and body-shaming innuendo by thousands of social media accounts. The entire media covered the story in prime-time bulletins for the next five days.

The expletives per se, pose a much smaller problem than the mindset that was put on display. The way objectification of women’s bodies has been normalised in the past one week is unprecedented and unheard of. Through this televised show of infectious misogyny, several problematic concepts crept into the popular discourse giving expressions and words to extrapolate on the inherent desi sexism.  That a woman’s worthiness depends on how pleasing her appearance is to the male gaze; that a man can hurl rude insults on women like calling her a bitch and other expletives had a profound effect on the average viewer. Although Twitter trolls have never known to be respectful towards women, this time they learned the behaviour of taking profanity too far. The suggestion that he is innocent because he was provoked by a woman into using expletives, speaks volumes about the privilege the society is still adamant to grant men.

The avalanche of abuse and threats that followed aside, the response of most of the media commentators barring few respectable exceptions, ended up perpetuating the sexist and hateful discourse about women marchers and activists. Aurat March, which has become one of the most significant resistance movements in Pakistan, was reduced to one placard that offended the paternalistic morality attached to women’s bodies. TV journalists used their medium as pulpit.

Interestingly, in a country where a woman was burnt alive because she refused a marriage proposal, a woman was stabbed 17 times because she rejected the advances of a class fellow, a girl child is raped and mutilated after being killed for just being in the street playing, women marchers are being unabashedly pontificated about how they needed to appease popular sensibilities about their bodies. How their bodies were actually Allah’s bodies so they must surrender every modicum of agency over their own bodies. Those of us who still own this slogan, are being mansplained to, as to what this actually means. “Why do you even insist on saying your bodies your choice? Why don’t you say, ‘my life my choice’? Such is the fear of losing unchallenged authority over women’s bodies.

Women spent last one week hearing about how to improve their ‘communications strategy’ and distance from one slogan that is attracting such strong criticism. As if those abusing women activists, destroying their work of art they prepared for the march, or threatening them of consequences if they came out, were just innocent responses to our so radical, so  drastic decision of being part of Aurat March and insisting on reclaiming our bodies. As if it is women’s fault that such a diverse movement with such vast representation of women’s problems was reduced to one slogan. No matter how loudly and how repeatedly Aurat March organisers have informed the media about wide spectrum of demands ranging from economic rights to political and economic rights.

Under every rubric, more than a dozen demands are listed. Marchers are asking for equal wages as of men, for minimum wage to be fixed at Rs. 40,000 ($ 300) per month for men and women. Women are demanding to improve family laws to ensure that the institution of marriage is not an unequal partnership. They want family planning, reproductive health, safe environment for children to grow, enabling environment for women to work and earn their living. From gender justice to climate justice – the range of women’s demands is impressively exhaustive.

Those who choose to ignore this list would do it on their own peril. Pakistan is on 150th number among 193 countries as far as women’s safety is concerned.  Political parties must acquire this charter of demands from Aurat March and start working on their respective manifestoes in light of these demands.

Media that is busy painting Aurat March organisers as some enemy agents from the west, must realise that the same west also funds our military and government for its development agenda. Men who are abusing women activists need to be schooled in decent discourse without racism, sexism, toxic masculinity and entitlement. Mr. Qamar was recently heard telling how much he loves his daughter, so he can’t be a misogynist. Well, it is quite reassuring that even the men having gigantic egos and Lilliputian grey matter do not want to be called misogynist! Sentiment acknowledged. But no thanks. Loving your daughter is a shallow way of measuring your level of misogyny. It is about how you perceive women in larger scheme of things.

How far you are able to place women in a world without socially constructed gender roles. And are you able to deconstruct stereotypes? Probably not, if you think every woman chanting ‘my body my choice’ is a slut desperate to have multiple sex partners or to sell sex. Get well soon Mr. Qamar.

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