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But is it sexism?

October 26, 2016

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RECENTLY, when young chaiwallah Arshad Khan glanced up from the tea he was pouring to hear the distinctive click of a camera, he couldn’t have imagined that a few short days later his face would be splashed all over the news. Yet that’s exactly what happened.

When a budding photographer in Islamabad posted pictures of the squared-jawed, blue-eyed 18-year-old on social media, his striking good looks ensured that people took notice. A flurry of activity followed: Arshad was dubbed Pakistan’s ‘hot chaiwallah’ on internet forums, he was interviewed by numerous TV channels, and, by the week’s end, he had secured a contract to model clothes for a local online shopping portal.

While many were thrilled at the possibility that Arshad’s momentary fame might allow him to generate an income otherwise outside the reach of a local tea vendor, others saw something sinister in the attention he received.


How should we view the case of the ‘hot chaiwallah’?


Some commentators have said the gaze with which we view Arshad is an example of what they like to call ‘reverse sexism’ — the objectification and, I’m assuming, subsequent subjugation of men. In Pakistan, this view bubbles up when pro-women legislation is passed, for example, or when women protest sexist ad campaigns. ‘Reverse sexism’, proponents of this view insist, sidelines men in favour of women. It harms men’s rights. Applied to commentary on Arshad Khan, the argument is this: if passing judgement on a woman’s physicality is sexist, why isn’t the same principle at play for men?

To start: much of what is being said about Arshad Khan is in fact troubling. Fetishising the so-called ‘underclass’ and their daily struggles, gleefully ‘discovering’ that ‘even’ a chaiwallah can be sexually appealing, bossily dictating what may or may not be ‘best’ for ‘them’ are all indicators of deeply entrenched classism at work.

But is it sexism? That’s a stretch, and a damaging one.

Sexism, like other systems of oppression, is enabled and remains pervasive because of power differentials between two groups — in this case heterosexual, or cisgender men — and everyone else. That control of resources, legislative decisions and, crucially, narrative-building is housed in male-led institutions ensures that women are hemmed in on all sides by a system invested in ensuring they remain ‘less than’.

In this context, it’s important to acknowledge that globally, and now in urban Pakistan, whatever strides have been made to counter sexism have been made in large part because proponents of women’s emancipation have fought to construct for themselves a language with which to identify and call out discriminatory behaviour. The movements they’ve initiated to highlight oppression depend on this language, and would be empty if not equipped with the terms to describe women’s unique experiences. The term ‘sexism’, as we now use it to denote behaviour towards women, is still young — a fistful of decades old. The very fact that this word has now entered mainstream conversation in Pakistan is a triumph. It remains an essential part of Pakistan’s feminist vernacular.

Is it correct to co-opt this word — apply it to pain felt by heterosexual men? In a word: no. Taking a word that women routinely rely on to describe the fallout from centuries of male aggression and using it to signify the opposite — that is, male pain — drains it of all meaning and purpose. It renders the word and all it signifies flat and barren.

This is to say nothing of the fact that heterosexual men don’t experience gender discrimination and objectification with the same regularity and violence that women do. They likely never will. In order for that to happen we’d have to reimage humanity’s formative years as being lorded over by a repressive, war-thirsty matriarchy, generations of men deferring to women.

The power differentials that created the pressing need for a word like ‘sexism’ still exist. The playing field is not yet level.

Systemic patriarchy has already taken so much away from women and everything associated with femininity — and it appears that now, by couching male discomfort in terms like ‘reverse sexism’ — it seeks to take away a woman’s language too. Is this just?

This is not to say, of course, that sexism affects only women — it damages everyone. Where women are subject to violence and discriminatory legislation, men suffer from sexism in that they’re pushed to inhabit what patriarchy in Pakistan deems ‘suitable’ maleness — a brutal machismo — and the cycle of inequality perpetuates itself. When sexism is at work, no gender can escape the confines of the roles it confers upon them, it’s true.

Despite that, there’s no denying the roles available for men to inhabit remain more varied and complex than those available to women. Men remain resolutely powerful.

One of the few tools that can speak to power is language — the ability to name injustices. Our treatment of Arshad Khan is many things. But don’t be so quick to call it sexist.

The writer is culture editor at Dawn.com.

Published in Dawn October 26th, 2016