AN opinionated woman in Pakistan might as well have a target painted on her back. When she has a public profile and is active on social media, the abuse and threats of physical and sexual violence directed at her multiply exponentially. A group of prominent women journalists have finally had enough: 30 of them have put their names to a statement seeking protection from what they described as “vicious attacks” targeting them on social media that have made it “extremely difficult” for them to carry out their professional duties. In their statement, posted with the defiant hashtag #AttacksWontSilenceUs, they allege that they have to contend with a torrent of abuse on social media, sometimes from government ministers, whenever they express views critical of the PTI government, specifically its handling of the pandemic. Aspersions are cast on their moral and professional integrity with PTI-affiliated accounts amplifying the vitriol. The journalists have demanded that the ruling party “immediately restrain its members from repeatedly targeting women in the media”.

A distinctive feature of PTI’s long dharna in 2014 was the enthusiastic participation of its female supporters. In fact, the party roundly condemned the right-wing elements who launched into misogynistic diatribes against the women for behaving ‘indecently’. Alas, judging from the journalists’ recent statement, it seems when the party’s male supporters feel ‘threatened’, they resort to the same sexist tropes and gendered slurs that are common currency in the public domain and designed to intimidate assertive women into silence. The party leadership must unequivocally condemn this campaign of intimidation. Some of its leaders, including Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari and Planning Minister Asad Umar have spoken out in response to the journalists’ statement. However, by clubbing sexual harassment with other, far lesser offences, or even completely unrelated ones, they have created a false equivalence and thereby diluted the message that should have been communicated. A survey conducted last year found that online harassment affects 95pc of women journalists in Pakistan. Unlike their male counterparts, they are bombarded with abuse of an explicitly personal or sexualised nature for challenging commonly accepted narratives or questioning the rationale behind government actions. The conformity expected of Pakistani women in general does not make any exception for female journalists, despite the fact they belong to a profession that shapes public opinion. Given the toxic atmosphere in which these women work, the protection for journalists bill cannot be tabled a moment too soon.

Published in Dawn, August 17th, 2020

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