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How Phantom, Faisal Qureshi and Shaan vs Mawra exposed sexism in our midst

Updated August 31, 2015

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As long as we associate womanhood with virtues we might consider inferior we continue to perpetuate sexism and sexist stereotypes.
As long as we associate womanhood with virtues we might consider inferior we continue to perpetuate sexism and sexist stereotypes.

A few years ago, British columnist and whip-smart funny woman Caitlin Moran wrote about the particular breed of sexism she often encountered.

"These days," she said, "sexism is a bit like Meryl Streep in a new film: sometimes you don’t recognise it straightaway. You can be 20 minutes in, enjoying all the dinosaurs and the space fights and the homesick Confederate soldiers, before you go, "Oh, my God-under the wig! THAT’S MERYL."

Moran was drawing attention to how sexism continues to define a woman's life even in nations that appear to have absorbed, at least on paper, the rule that people must not be discriminated against on the basis of gender. Call it casual sexism, everyday sexism, call it what you will. It exists, and identifying it is important.

Following Pakistani media almost makes me yearn for a place where sexism is Meryl Streep, and so, poles apart from Pakistan, where sexism is more like Humayun Saeed: utterly enduring, omnipresent, glowering at you from every medium possible, making an appearance in everything all at once.

So of course, sexism managed to shimmy into this past week's biggest social media storm too — a storm involving the film Phantom, Saif Ali Khan, a Pakistani TV presenter, Mawra Hocane, Shaan Shahid, and just about every other person with internet access.

It all began with TV presenter-slash-pundit-slash-foot-in-mouther Faisal Qureshi's little rant about Saif Ali Khan.

Actually, Faisal Qureshi, your video was sexist by any measure

In response to Saif Ali Khan saying he doesn't "have faith in Pakistan" after his upcoming film Phantom (based on the 2006 Mumbai attacks) was banned by a Pakistani court, Faisal Qureshi set up a video camera, popped on a microphone and proceeded to get sexist.

During the course of his 12-minute video, which has been watched over a million times, Qureshi schools Khan in India-Pakistan relations ("we're like two brothers fighting over an inheritance," he says), piracy in Pakistan ("we only watch pirated Indian films so that, God willing, your economy goes down the tubes," he says) and a whole host of other misconceptions the actor might've had.

Also read: Faisal Qureshi’s rant targeting Saif Ali Khan is not ‘patriotism’

But this isn't the worst of Qureshi's rant. Qureshi uses his choicest insult strategically, at the video's beginning, end, and a few well-timed moments in the middle. This is when he lashes out at Saif with the ultimate affront: he calls him a woman.

"Janab Saif Ali Khan Sahibadekho beti," he begins (Miss Saif Ali Khan — look here, my girl). Later, he calls Khan a "little girl," and inexplicably says "little girls don't stay awake after 8pm, and if they do, they don't watch films like James Bond or Mission Impossible... and little girls like you, especially, shouldn't watch films like Cat Woman."

What's so troubling about this video is how, for Qureshi, women, womanhood and being a woman are the worst things in the world. What better way to belittle a famous Bollywood actor than to call him a woman? In this context, in calling Khan a woman Qureshi's achieved a multitude of victories all at once: he's called into question Khan's manhood, he's dismissed him as an insensible, idiotic, brainless creature and he's established his own superiority in comparison to a waif. Because, of course, that's how he views women.

Like so many in Pakistan (and across the globe), for Qureshi the catch-all phrase "women" is a convenient repository for his hate, a dumping ground for his anathema, a target to which every ill felt by man — economic, social, religious — can be directed. Womanhood is synonymous with shame and disgust, because woman are, by virtue, inferior.

At best, this attitude is expressed by treating women with good-humoured tolerance, as if a woman was a pesky pet and a man it's benevolent owner. At worst, it leads to atrociously unfair legislation and the very real threat of violence. Both attitudes are equally misogynistic, by the way.

When called out on the misogyny evident in his video, Qureshi shot back on Twitter with the response "If I called u a pig wud (sic) I insult the pig?", by which I presume he means that he wasn't insulting all women, he was just insulting Saif Ali Khan by calling him a woman.

Which, of course, is one and the same thing. The moment you use a person's identity as a slur, you're making clear your revulsion for everything that person is and stands for. No one who called anyone a homo was feeling loving towards homosexuals. No one who called anyone the N-word held the black community in highest esteem. Similarly, no one who calls anyone a woman as an insult has respect for women.

As long as we associate womanhood with virtues we might consider inferior we continue to perpetuate sexism and sexist stereotypes. This should be obvious, I think. It never ceases to amaze me that to some people it isn't.

Enter Shaan, and a hate campaign against Mawra

Unfortunately, the blatant sexism didn't end there. In response to the stir Phantom had caused, actress Mawra Hocane took to Twitter and said of the film: "If it's anti-terrorism... then yes I'm anti terrorism, it doesn't matter which land I belong to. I'm pro humanity and love and that's that." She followed this statement up with: "i would like to watch Phantom and then decide whether it's good or bad... And that's exactly what everyone should do..."

When compared with Faisal Qureshi's take on Phantom, Mawra's opinions are incredibly measured; urging restraint rather than knee-jerk jingoism. But actor Shaan Shahid didn't see it this way. He kickstarted a campaign to #BanMawra, asking: "Should we banned (sic) actress like her who is supporting anti pakistan movie?"

As responses to Shaan's question poured in, they quickly took a predictably nasty tone. It's now commonly accepted that online stalking and harassment affects more young women than men, and this time Mawra was the victim.

Commentators began assassinating her character and calling her unprintable, gender-specific names, the kind of insults only used against women when the object is to use shame to assert male dominance and authority.

The amount of vitriol was truly shocking, and all the anger ever felt towards Saif Ali Khan or Phantom appeared to be suddenly projected upon Mawra.

Following this, in a Facebook response to Shaan, Mawra claimed that one of the two categories of people the actor likes to "bash" are women, "of course because you're a man."

Mawra's post is one of the few times a Pakistani actress has directly and publicly called out a peer for being sexist, and I have to thank her for that.

In fact, Mawra's response is the only thing that makes this whole farce bearable. That she doesn't apologise for standing up for herself and doesn't shirk from embracing her ambition is utterly refreshing, and something we need to see more of.

It is a necessary first step towards righting a balance of opinion which has, of late, been skewed in favour of men who have displayed shocking amounts of sexism, hate and intolerance on TV and in social media largely unchecked.

Also read: Junaid Jamshed in hot water again over sexist remark. Social media responds

To me, this whole incident is less about Phantom, patriotism, or India-Pakistan relations and more about national character as it relates to gender. Because really, regardless of whether Saif Ali Khan's comment was a planned publicity stunt or a heartfelt rant, the truth is that right now he's the party least affected by the frenzied response in Pakistan. We are the bigger losers — the women who've been belittled by Faisal Qureshi's video and the men who've been taught, yet again, that it's OK to be sexist.

It brings home a point Jibran Nasir made in a video response to this furor, also posted on Facebook. Addressing Shaan Shahid, Faisal Qureshi and Hamza Ali Abbasi, he urged the trio to be cautious and responsible with how they use social media, given that they're followed by hundreds of thousands of impressionable people.

Those hundreds of thousands of people are being done a disservice if all we have to feed them is more misogyny and gender bias. As if we don't already face enough of it in our daily lives, let alone being bombarded by it on social media.

The question is, who's the next person who'll set the record straight and expose sexism when and where it happens?

Will it be Mawra again?

Will it be you?