AT a session on student politics at the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) earlier this year, after panelist Arooj Aurangzeb’s passionate speech about social inequity, a woman seated behind me whispered to the woman next to her “why is [Arooj] so angry?” The other lady replied: “I don’t know. Nothing will get done if she behaves like this.” At the end of the session, I saw dozens of young people throng Arooj, a progressive activist based in Lahore, while behind me, a largely older audience tut-tutted Arooj for her “outbursts”.
Initially I put this down to a generational issue until I saw similar reactions to Aurat March. Women who share opinions or honest experiences that challenge the status quo are immediately labelled angry.
I should have had the courage at KLF to turn to the women behind me and say perhaps Arooj is angry at the culture which rewards misogyny, where abusing women online reaps dividends. Women’s anger isn’t the problem here, but perhaps it could prove to be a solution.
In her book Good and Mad, American journalist Rebecca Traister talks about this very anger and its political consequences.
What if people changed the way they saw anger?
Women’s anger in the US, for example, led to the election of at least 100 women in the House of Representatives in 2019 — there were several firsts: first two Muslim women, first two Native American women, and the youngest one too. As Traister said, it wasn’t just the women running who were angry, their supporters were angry and channelled that anger to challenge and change power structures.
In Pakistan too, women are angry at how no one is held accountable for the oppression they must endure — oppression at state level, at the work place, in the home and in public spaces. Their anger is real but conversations around it are sidelined to “but what about X group that has it as bad”.
Anger has a divisive power and to deny that would be foolish, says Traister, but it also has a connective power. Women in Pakistan are channelling that rage and challenging the status quo — through art, writing, social media — and they are organising. Of course it won’t be welcome.
In her remarkable book Eloquent Rage, academic Dr Brittney Cooper says the quickest way to discredit a woman who is threatening is to call her angry. When a woman raises her voice she is immediately dismissed whereas the same is not true for a man: men’s anger demonstrates his strength; a woman’s, her irrationality.
Women have spent a lifetime being told there’s nothing useful or productive about anger, that it’s not ladylike, that it won’t garner sympathy and other ridiculous notions that keep patriarchal structures in business. I’ve seen women work twice as hard to protect the very forces that deny women rights.
This was clearly on display in the conversations around the recent online petition by women journalists calling for action against the powerful, organised forces that harass, abuse and threaten them online. (Full disclosure, I signed the petition and am not on Twitter.) It was no surprise how much of the talk on the subject focused on the divisions in the ranks between the signatories and non-signatories and made calls for them to unify, ie compromise the purpose of the petition. None of the signatories who appeared on the primetime circuit to explain their position were angry, but it’s no surprise their detractors were — and how.
For too long, we have seen the powerful prevent women from coming together by offering advantages to different groups of women at the cost of marginalising the vulnerable. As Traister asked during a book tour, should energies be spent in persuading women to come on board or should there be an acceptance that some women are attached to conservative ideologies which benefit them. Why is the expectation of solidarity on women; how often do you hear men with diverse viewpoints in the newsroom to suck it up and get along?
What if people changed the way they saw anger, as something productive from which something can be built, asks Traister? In the case of the women journalists, what if they are able to use their voices to build a system that should have existed a long time ago?
Based on my own experience in the newsroom, I believe women don’t get to hear “it’s OK to be angry”. Instead, their seniors say “you don’t know what it was like when I was a journalist in the newsroom”. I suspect I have said this to students and I am sorry I did. I understand now that I was made to feel grateful for simply being at the table. I understand now what Dr Cooper means when she describes what it’s like to “live in a nation that does everything to induce our rage while simultaneously doing everything to deny that we have a right to feel it”. I’m pleased so many women are having none of it.
The writer teaches journalism at IBA in Karachi.
Published in Dawn, September 13th, 2020