Tagged with " Gender"
Aug 14, 2012 - published work, women    4 Comments

The overwhelmingly male story of Pakistan

The story of Pakistan is overwhelmingly male. Whether we discuss politics, economics, history, literature or entertainment, we tell the stories of men and we tell them with a dominant male perspective. Take Independence Day celebrations in the media for instance; there are stories of valour of our soldiers, fighter pilots are glamorized, farmers are shown driving a tractor tilling the land, male welders are working on a construction sites and boys playing cricket in the grounds of Minar-e-Pakistan. If we are lucky there are a couple of mentions of women; usually an elderly maternal type is shown who is praying either for the country or its soldiers defending the borders or perhaps a teacher or nurse.
If such a representation is to be believed, then a very small percentage of our population is female and this is the country of men. Those who do get the representation are the chador clad virtuous women who either pray for the men who are out living their lives or are in care giving roles, the rest do not count.
The concept of chardeewari and women staying inside is a very urban middle class notion and a considerably small percentage of our population falls under this category. The fact that our national narrative is designed accordingly and has no place for women who do not cement the patriarchal notion that only a woman who is covered in a chador is virtuous and worthy of respect and can be the face of a Pakistani woman is mind boggling. A visit to any village in most parts of the country would discredit this notion. Women work in their homes, outside their homes, they work long hours in the barns and the farms and contribute significantly to the economy. Their contributions may not formally be acknowledged in the GDP but their productivity is part of the society and economy.
The popular model of women that gets space in the national narrative is not only misogynist — showing women in supporting roles only, as if they are not capable of living a full life — but is also very classist. Most women cannot afford to stay at home and thus must work — at times, harder and for longer hours than men, in order to make ends meet. If the chador clad stay-at-home woman is peddled as a socially desirable model that receives representation in the national narrative, then the country is doing utmost injustice to the majority of women who cannot afford this way of life.
What about the contributions of urban women who do not abide by the chador and char deewari philosophy? Should they be excluded from the national narrative because they do not conform to the popular idea of what is considered appropriate for women? They live and work in Pakistan, contribute to the economy, pay taxes and are waiting for the day when they, too, will get their rightful space in the national narrative, right beside the soldier, the doctor and the farmer — and not in the role of a caregiver. By default, women are caregivers; if she is a mother, then she is the primary caregiver. However, defining her by just that one aspect of her life and ignoring others is tantamount to making her half a person.
This Independence Day, let’s pledge to make an effort to provide space to everyone who is a part of this country and have them become a part of the national narrative. That is the only way forward. The women are half of the story of this country, let the other half be heard.

Originally written for The Express Tribune
Aug 7, 2012 - published work, women    4 Comments

Gender-neutral Pakistan, a distant dream

Earlier this year, I conducted part of a gender sensitization workshop organized for government officials. I had the most diversified group because it had representation from all across Pakistan. We had people from the big cities as well as smaller towns and villages such as Khoshab, Noshki, Dadu, Dera Ismail Khan and Ghotki. 
During a session on gender and leadership, I asked everyone to name a leader they like and admire. It could be a community leader, a politician or a sportsman.  I asked them to name a person who is alive (otherwise I would have gotten Iqbal and Jinnah as most admired leaders), brought changes in his/her community, challenges the status quo and has managed to inspire at least one person. All 25 participants came up with a man’s name including the usual suspects such as Imran Khan and Shahbaz Shareef to some really off beat choices such as Mushahid Hussain Syed (seriously!) 
We discussed each and every name and why they admire them and people came up with some really odd reasons. One guy, who quite obviously has worked with Mushahid Hussain Syed in the past, liked him because of his English language skills and his ties and the guy from Dadu thought President Zaradari was the best leader to have graced this land because of his policy of reconciliation. 

I asked the participants if they had any female leaders around them and the only leader they could think of was Speaker National Assembly Dr Fehmida Mirza. When I asked them why they thought she was a leader and what kind of changes had she brought, either in her community or workplace, they could not think of any reason other than stating her office and the fact that she is the first female speaker.

I then decided to throw in a couple of names, who I thought would generate debate about types of leadership roles. I suggested Bilquis Edhi, the woman, who started the first adoption service in Pakistan and gave home to thousands of unwanted babies. I then took the name of Mukhtaran Mai, a gang-rape victim, who challenged every patriarchal and misogynist person, the system and law of the land, opened up the first ever girls school in her village and has been battling the perpetrators of her crime for over a decade.

Participants grudgingly agreed that Bilquis Edhi is a leader but also mentioned that she could not have done it all had she not been married to the most dedicated and well-known social worker of the country. The reaction on Mukhtaran Mai was anything but civil. With the sole exception of two women, everyone said that she is not a leader despite evidence to the contrary. She was called everything from a gold-digger to a publicity whore to just plain old whore and a bad example for other women. When asked to give reasons for their repugnance, they failed to come up with a solid reason other than her bringing shame to Pakistan in the international community.

The reaction of the participants was reflective of the society we live in. People are threatened by a woman who is not even a direct threat to them and is only challenging misogynist laws and the system by asking for a fair trial. She and all the other women stand no hope of living in a more gender-friendly society, which will remain a distant dream for a very long time. All gender sensitisation workshops will fail if we do not make serious effort to radically alter the stereotype images of women and girls in our textbooks, popular media and homes. Presenting an alternative, more gender-neutral environment is our only hope of providing a safer society to our daughters.

 First published in The Express Tribune.

This all pervasive misogyny

Every country has its fair share of misogynist politicians trying to tell women not to drive or have abortions, wear or not to wear burqa or contest elections, but Pakistan beats them all with the likes of Sheikh Alauddin who not only is openly misogynist, he is also ill mannered enough to call his colleagues – female members of Punjab Assembly – all kinds of names, names so impolite that not only some of the TV channels refused to air his tirade against women MPAs before censoring it, but the speaker of the assembly also had to get those nasty bits removed from the records. 
Women MPAs protested against his spiel about the non virtuous nature of his female colleagues, but when he refused to stop, Seemal Kamran, an MPA Pakistan Muslim League-Q threw a shoe at Alauddin and all hell broke loose. Ms. Kamran was barred from entering the assembly premises by the Speaker next day, was involved in a skirmish with the security guards and when she later tried to file an FIR against Sheikh Alauddin for harassment and misconduct at workplace, she was told that an FIR can only be filed against an MPA after directions from the speaker of the assembly.
It is sad to realize that misogyny is seeped so deep in our society that a woman as powerful as one sitting in the assembly cannot file a report against a co worker for workplace misconduct and harassment despite video evidence. It is so ironic that a place that is supposed to make laws for workplace harassment houses some of the worst offenders who have no qualms in calling their colleagues circus whores (the exact words of Sheikh Alauddin were maut ke kuwo-on mein nachnay wali aurtain among other things).
While some TV channels showed restrain and did not air the abusive language of Shaikh Alauddin, some other TV channels aired selective footage where Seemal Kamran threw a shoe at him but aired it with sensational copy and did not show the abusive and misogynist behavior and speaker’s lack of response which prompted that incident. People who have witnessed the assembly proceedings say that Kamran’s response may seem a little over the top but the women in Punjab assembly are only returning the favour after putting up with four years of verbal & physical abuse during assembly sessions. No wonder legislation against misogynist practices, domestic violence runs into snags repeatedly because our assemblies are full of people who consider misogyny a way of life.
It is also to be noted that Shiekh Alauddin’s rant against women MPAs has openly mocked the constitutional provision of reserved seats for women by calling them the group that violates the sanctity of the house. Election commission of Pakistan should take notice of this at soonest of it wants its authority as the supreme body for electoral process to be respected. 
Women rights groups demands action against Member Punjab Assembly, Sheikh Allauddin for using abusive language for women members of the house on 20th June 2012 which of course is an appropriate demand, but it is not just the action of one man, the incident represented a mindset that cannot accept women either in public spaces or in a position of power. We must condemn people like Alauddin for their reprehensible behavior but the society in general and women’s groups in particular need to look for ways to redress the way we view women in public spaces and positions of power and deal with this all pervasive misogyny. 
Originally written for  The Express Tribune, this is the unedited version.

Trash TV is just trash, even when the characters wear Prada

One of the advantages of growing older is that you are not generally ashamed about the questionable things you do; like eating nutella straight from the jar, reading Ansar Abbasi’s pearls of wisdom in Jang every week and watching trash tv like Gossip Girl. 
I just finished watching the season finale of the tv series and I am marveling at the fact that people who wrote and produced the show still have jobs. I mean one usually watches soap like crap with suspension of logic, such as resurrection of Daddy Bass from the dead (he was not really dead but was hiding in Bermuda Triangle or a tanning salon if his skin tone is any indication) or Mummy van der Woodson’s accessories  – or was it Bass or Humphery; I lost count and order of her multiple husbands – (She was wearing gigantic earrings while she was still in her gown/robe/not dressed in the morning and is lacing her coffee with something alcoholic) but to caricaturize the characters to the extent that they have done in this show – everyone has lied, schemed and cheated on their spouses and significant others at some point or the other – requires a suicidal level of crazy.
I always bemoan the fact that Pakistani television shows women as either helpless creatures, scheming bitches or victims; but with shows such as Gossip Girl, it looks like that American tv featuring the lives and exploits of rich and powerful of New York is just as lame and with characters with similar flaws. There are two leading female characters who have failed The Bechdel Test in every goddamned episode. If they are not talking about a guy they are dating or want to date then they are scheming with each other and against each other. One of them is a very smart Ivy league student, yet she gives into an abusive relationship time and again (we have seen her suitor being manipulative and violent in the past. He also had the dubious honour of trading her for a piece of real estate and cheating her with an underage girl. He also has an obsession with bow ties and colour purple, but I digress) and can only defines herself through her boyfriends. The other one is not so smart – yet she too ends up in the same Ivy league school (suspension of logic, I tell ya) and has a peculiar obsession with a guy who used to be her boyfriend – turned step sibling – turned best friend’s boy friend (yes, it is as incestuous as it sounds) and slips into her old bad ways of riding trains and hooking up with her drug dealer who looked suspiciously like a pop singer when the said boyfriend turned step sibling turned bestie’s boyfriend spurned her advances for the 537494th time.
What happened to women’s liberation and feminism? Are those ideas so last century that no one wants to portray female characters on TV who are smart, independent and do not define themselves through a man? I know it is asking a lot from the local television writers and producers who are still busy peddling stories about polygamist feudal lords, jahez ki lanat, baap ki izzat and saas bahu tamasha but if the first world’s emancipated women are subject to this crap then there is no hope.
Perhaps my younger snootier self was right in sticking to TV shows with people like Tina Fey
 PS: Watch this awesomesauce video on Blechdel Test if you are interested.
PPS: Tina Fey is like my most gigantic girl crush. 
PPPS: This post is kinda suicidal as I am publicly admitting to watching trash TV. I have a feeling that my sister is going to have a field day when she wakes up in the morning.