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Upside of outrage

Updated March 20, 2017


First, the bad news: misogyny in all its varied forms is alive and well in Pakistan. You’re probably thinking that this ‘revelation’ is akin to saying that water remains wet and that fire still burns, but bear with me as there’s also some good news. And that is that things are changing for the better, and proof of that can be found in the reactions to the recent string of misogynistic comments by various ministers and parliamentarians.

Let’s recap. On March 8, which ironically enough was International Women’s Day, Nighat Shaikh, an MPA of the Punjab Assembly, asked provincial minister Haroon Sultan a question, which he was unable to answer; instead, he responded by asking the MPA to ‘come to his chambers’ for a full explanation. This may have been without ill-intent, but the men seated next to the minister didn’t seem to think so, as evidenced by their laughter and back-slapping.

PML-N MPA Uzma Bokhari didn’t take it lightly, and called on the minister to retract his statement and apologise, a demand that was echoed by Rana Sanaullah and the speaker of the house. Reportedly, the minister was warned by his colleagues that making a comment like this (and that too on Women’s Day) would get him skewered if the issue wasn’t handled immediately, and he duly apologised.

Consequently, this episode didn’t receive the kind of coverage that the very similar Imdad Pitafi-Nusrat Sehar Abbasi incident earlier did. Here, Pitafi, the Sindh minister for works and services, also invited Ms Abbasi, a PML-F MPA, to his chambers, resulting in uproar in the house and the media.

To its credit, the PPP leadership took a strong stance, with Bakhtawar Bhutto-Zardari demanding that Pitafi apologise for his “unacceptable behaviour”, which, she said, went against “the ethos of the party”. Nafisa Shah also called for an unconditional apology and Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari called on the PPP parliamentary leader in the house to issue a show-cause notice to Pitafi.

Politicians making lewd remarks are now taken to task.

Then there was the Javed Latif-Murad Saeed altercation, which received great attention from the media as well. The timeline of this case, and the way the outrage shifted, is instructive.

Speaking in the National Assembly, Latif called Imran Khan, the chairman of the PTI, a traitor and received an angry response from MNA Murad Saeed. As they left the building, there was another exchange of words, which resulted in Saeed attempting to punch Mr Latif. At this point, outrage on mainstream and social media was largely directed at Mr Saeed for having turned a verbal altercation into a physical one, but then Javed Latif decided to open his mouth and make some highly distasteful comments about Saeed’s sisters.

That’s when all hell broke loose. Talk shows and Twitter alike exploded in outrage, and loud demands were made for Latif to make a full and unconditional apology, with others demanding nothing less than his deseating. Latif was sharply questioned on every talk show he participated in, and his ‘yes, but…’ apologies were rejected out of hand.

In the din of this outrage, Murad Saeed’s resorting to fisticuffs was ignored as the lesser offence — something that was clearly reflected by a National Assembly committee that recommended suspending Murad for two days and Javed Latif for eight days from the National Assembly. Ultimately, Latif bowed to pressure and extended an unconditional apology.

A point to note is that, unlike the PPP leadership during the much less vicious Pitafi incident, the PML-N leadership remained conspicuously silent, and pointed questions were raised as to why heir apparent Maryam Nawaz Sharif in particular was not seen reprimanding Latif.

Nevertheless, we must consider that none of these apologies would have been forthcoming even a few years ago, and were due in large part to our collective outrage. To illustrate this point, consider that, in 2008, Balo­chistan Senator Sardar Israrullah Zehri stood before the upper house and defended the burying alive of three teenage girls and two women in district Jafarabad as part of “our tribal custom”.

The issue had been raised in the house by Senator Bibi Yasmin Shah of the PML-Q and, far from condemning Zehri’s response, the then acting Senate chairman Jan Mohammad Jamali, who was presiding over the session, said: “Yasmin Shah should go to our society and see for herself what the situation is like there and then come back to raise such questions in the house.”

Now imagine what kind of response there would be if anyone dared to say the same today. This is not to say that there has been a sea change in our attitudes, or that Pakistan is about to turn into a paradise for women — far from it. But what is clear is that the rules of public discourse have changed for the better, and while progress is slow, incremental and often easily derailed, it has certainly taken place.

The writer is a journalist.

Twitter: @zarrarkhuhro

Published in Dawn, March 20th, 2017

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