Beast of sexism

September 06, 2015


The writer is the author of A season for martyrs.
The writer is the author of A season for martyrs.

IT’S very exciting to witness history taking place in front of your eyes, and I’m proud to see that there is a sea change happening in Pakistan today. That change is the realisation that sexism and misogyny is the ugly beast that walks amongst us.

For decades we’ve obfuscated this fact by claiming that our culture and religion require us to respect women. Our respect for women has remained at the most superficial level; the deeper truth is that there is an ingrained dislike of women in our minds, the result of our cultural upbringing, and that it plays out in the world as discrimination against women just on the basis of their gender.

Today women are lifting their heads in Pakistan to say that they have had enough. They are no longer satisfied with being forced to accept an inferior status in Pakistani society. They are recognising that they have equal rights as citizens of Pakistan, and are demanding that they be treated with real dignity and respect, not just the lip service that has been masquerading as respect for all these years.

Today, women are lifting their heads to say they’ve had enough.

The change has been coming for a long time. Traditionally, Pakistani women have taken sexism in their stride, accepting it as part and parcel of being a woman in a conservative society. They have pursued their education, built their careers, contributed to Pakistan’s economy and social fabric, participated in nation-building, all the while facing tremendous opposition and resistance for no better reason than that they were challenging social norms. 

They have carried on despite this opposition, endured the taunts and jibes about their bad character or their lack of devotion to their families. They have withstood emotional, mental and physical abuse, faced divorce and abandonment, and in many cases have been killed because their lives are deemed to have less value than men’s. These aggressions, large and small, have come from both men and women, and are aimed at suppressing a woman’s natural desire to feed her family, or do something good for her community, or even just fulfil her own ambitions and needs for personal development. 

But today’s women are different. Education and exposure to the rest of the world, the inevitable stepping stones of progress, have made Pakistani women aware of the sexism and misogyny that riddles our society. And for the first time, they have decided that they have had enough. Instead of accepting that this is ‘how it is’ in Pakistan, they are questioning and debating the place of women in Pakistani society, and refusing to pretend that sexism is acceptable to them.

For the first time, I have been seeing conversations about sexism taking place: in conferences, roundtables, workshops and lectures. At universities, workplaces, at home. On media, both mainstream and social. Now, not only are women daring to go to school or to work, to move freely and to travel, but they are refusing to accept that this is something wrong, unnatural or sinful. This may not seem like a big deal, but it’s the shift in mindset that precedes revolutions.

Recently, a Pakistani anchor insulted Saif Ali Khan by calling him a ‘girl’ in a video response to Khan’s disappointment that his movie Phantom was banned in Pakistan. This triggered a social media storm; hundreds of Pakistanis, young and old, male and female, debated furiously on Twitter and Facebook over the sexist insults aimed at Pakistani anchor Marwa Hocane, who merely said that she thought Pakistanis should watch the film and then decide whether or not it should be banned.

Women voiced their anger at the casual sexism that deems the word ‘girl’ an appropriate insult to a man’s masculinity, and their fury that the word ‘slut’ was used to try and silence and shame Hocane. They understand fully well that language is a powerful weapon in the backlash against women moving towards progress and equality. Even more heartening, a number of Pakistani men supported the women in this debate. That they too feel the harm patriarchy has done them; that they want to be firm allies to Pakistani women is another revolution in itself. 

The media has a huge role to play in combating sexism in Pakistani society. In contrast to the irresponsible actions of the anchors who used sexist language to deride Saif Ali Khan and Marwa Hocane, journalists, media heads, writers, and other interested citizens recently met at a roundtable convened by Uks to discuss a gender-sensitive code of ethics. They recognised that reporting about women is often “stereotyping, dehumanising and commodifying”. But they won’t change until Pakistani society itself rejects sexism and demands that the media do the same.

Thankfully, Pakistani women have woken up, and they won’t be going back to sleep anytime soon. We will tame the beast of sexism and misogyny until it has no more legs to stand on.

The writer is the author of A season for martyrs.


Published in Dawn, September 6th, 2015

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