Separating The Art From The Artist And Sex From Harassment
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s persistent peddling of the myth that women’s bodies compel helpless brown men to commit sex crimes has drawn international ignominy but has resonated domestically with pious conservatives. While his views have incensed rights activists, it has been some vanilla ‘lifestyle liberals’ who have unwittingly defied the PM’s lectures on piety, purdah, and western and Bollywood influences.
At the recent Hum TV awards, a host of young celebrities boldly flouted the PM’s sermons on immodest dress and flashed lots of skin in eccentric fashion. Predictably, the PM’s false correlation of women’s flesh and vulgarity was echoed in the social media backlash against these celebs. Meanwhile, in the spirit of equal solidarity with state and celebrity misogyny, Hum TV had invited a celebrity accused of sexual harassment to host the event and so, the organisers deservedly found themselves stranded in the purgatory of outrage from both, the conservatives and the liberals.
Now, any comment about selective outrage prompts some intellectuals to clutch their pearls and successfully evade the subject of contradictions by pressing their cancel buttons. Liberated by having earned this privilege already, one can confidently observe then, that Hum TV is not the only ‘feminist ally’ guilty of undermining women’s cause. Many corporate sector events and festivals regularly do that. Some ‘judges’ for these events have offered convoluted justifications about separating art from the predatory artist. (Despite this, only the PM seems to qualify as an ‘apologist’).
So, Hum TV deserves to be cut some flak because apparently, it’s not prudent to hold all awards events, festivals, political stands, or alleged perpetrators to the same standards or principles. Each must be judged selectively, according to the principle of individual opportunism and elective sympathy. In clear contrast are women like the football player, Hajra Khan, who confirmed at the Hum awards this year, the trauma suffered by survivors of harassment in the presence of predators and she harboured no conceptual confusion between the art and artist.
The PM and others are not the only ones defended by women from the school of Misplaced Loyalties to Misogynists. Between the neoliberal corporate capture of feminism, and the ready defense of woke friends, male apologists of all species are selectively defended all the time. The same ‘mansplainers’, ‘manel’ participants, and those who in cowardly fashion undermine other feminists via social media gossip instead of open intellectual debate, are acceptable to many acclaimed feminists if they happen to be friends, allies, or colleagues. In this murky network of competitiveness, social sycophancy, selective call outs, and cancel politics for the sake of promoting self and saving men and institutions, women are the biggest losers.
Rape is about sex but harassment is not
In this circus of moral ambivalence, the survivors of sex crimes remain isolated, often suicidal at the thought of being discredited and abandoned. Several activists have asked for assistance with harassment cases and the grueling court visits, and against secondary harassment from law-enforcement, without success. Outrage and performative politics rarely converts to offline support.
The PM’s remarks on sex crimes were not misplaced, misspoken or misinterpreted – they have influenced the imminent legislation of two extremely problematic Anti-Rape ordinances – now bills in the Senate.
The PM insists any challenge to pietist interpretations of social evils is ‘western cultural imperialism’. Since this government’s non-western ‘native’ understanding of sex crime is phallocentric and based on pious respectability and biological determinism, the imminent anti-rape laws now prescribe the unproven punishment of castration while the death penalty option for rape remains.
These laws have added layers of bureaucratic duplications to the 2016 amended law, including the trendy JITs, special crime cells, committees, testimonies through video conferencing, and other culturally bizarre expectations in a country where it’s difficult to find a grade 17 officer to verify documents, let alone, carry out rape investigations. Only the kitchen sink is missing.
On the other hand, the legal status of sodomy in relation to rape crimes has been evaded since that requires Islamic jurisprudential scrutiny, and the implications of the 18th Amendment and provincial reception have been overlooked where federal authorities and offices have been empowered for various tasks. Those defending the inflated, ambitious and duplicated proposals in these bills seem to have never worked on rape cases – certainly not all the way to the dead-ends where most land or are compromised or resiled en route.
Meanwhile, most disconcerting are the Supreme Court’s recent observations on a case of sexual harassment at the workplace (civil petition from 2019, Nadia Naz versus the President and Others). They reveal the Court’s interpretive myopia and limited understanding of sex crimes.
The SC rightfully criticizes the 2010 Anti-Sexual Harassment Law for its limited coverage of only “a minute fraction of harassment”. Such compromises were imposed by the religious parties who opposed, blackmailed and diluted the final draft before allowing it to pass. However, the SC judgement against the complainant insists that, “the aggrieved person under the provisions of the act has the responsibility to prove that the perpetrator truly had an accompanying sexual intention or overture with his act, demeanor, behavior, and/or conduct.” This is a major blow to the decade-long awareness campaign (led heroically by Fouzia Saeed) that accompanied the Anti Sexual Harassment law in a commitment to change the gendered culture that enables sexual harassment – an offense that relies on innuendo, coercion, and unspoken blackmail.
How does the already powerless victim prove the predator’s ‘demeanor’? How does she evade criminal defamation that is slapped on her if she dares to speak out against the behaviour or conduct of her co-worker? For the SC to additionally burden a victim in a context where the PM has already affirmed a woman’s body as both, a weapon and a liability, simply smacks of quid pro quo.
Between the PM’s and SC’s reductive understanding of sex crimes, women are in danger of losing the few legal, social and narrative gains that have been made over the past few years. Harassers will regain the overwhelming impunity that is already their privilege.
Feminists have no allies in the current state apparatus and no committed ones in the ruling party, where women representatives strive to defend the PM as if he were divinity. But, if those feminists who perform their protests against sexual harassment remain diplomatic or silent within their own intimate circles, then they qualify in the same category as the apologists and cheerleaders of the PM, and sites of institutionalized sexism. They know who they are.
Afiya Shehrbano Zia is a feminist scholar based in Karachi and author of Faith and Feminism in Pakistan: Religious Agency or Secular Autonomy? (SAP, 2018). She has written for various news outlets in Pakistan and abroad. Afiya Shehrbano Zia can be reached at [email protected]