Maryam-bashing

Published March 3, 2024
The writer is a journalism instructor
The writer is a journalism instructor

WHEN I was teaching at a journalism programme in Karachi a few years ago, former editor of The News, and columnist Ghazi Salahuddin would give a lecture on Malala Yousafzai where he would tell students to speak openly. I once witnessed students’ disdain for Malala but Ghazi sahib handled it with such poise, never making them feel they were being challenged for their views. Students repeated the usual claims ‘what has Malala done for Pakistan’. (As an aside, I believe an update of that disdain should ask what has Malala done for Palestine because her silence has been especially disappointing.)

I digress. The point Ghazi sahib was making, as he told me after that lecture, was that if you want to gauge people’s politics quickly, you should ask them about Malala. It has served me well — seemingly well-meaning people, who aren’t anti-West, or women, or right-wing, would say the strangest things about her.

I believe Maryam Nawaz is the new bashing-kid on the block. Of course, she’s not a kid but I’ve rarely seen people express that kind of rage and hatred for another dynasty child — Pakistan has plenty across all parties. Maryam is treated like a pariah. She is also disparaged privately by party members who feel she doesn’t deserve to be where she is. She hasn’t ranked high in popularity polls before the elections, though to be fair, it’s hard to compete with Imran Khan.

I understand Maryam’s unfavourablity factor, if there’s such a thing, is rooted in misogyny which women leaders the world over experience.

The Reykjavik Index, which studies how people feel about women leadership, found in 2021 low levels of confidence for women leaders; the higher percentages were in G7 countries. I was surprised to read that younger men “were especially unlikely to endorse women leaders”, but then I reminded myself of some classroom discussions I’ve had about Aurat March…

Shouldn’t we wait before giving Maryam an F grade?

This finding was particularly eye-opening: “Some people who don’t consider the­m­selves sexist believe that because the world is sexist, women leaders are likely to be weaker.”

Just a year later, the index found trust in women leadership is falling though their numbers in high-ranking positions are on the rise. Analysts urged countries to ‘fix the trust gap’ if they want to eradicate gender bias.

The more Maryam’s profile rose since 2013, the more scorn she received. I remember how furious social media users were when The New York Times featured her as one of the 11 powerful women “we met in the world” in 2017. Although the paper rep­o­­rted on corruption charges against her fa­m­ily, social media users were not convin­ced she earned her place as her father’s right-hand person. Male scions are not carefully examined.

I am not here to convince you about Maryam’s abilities or lack of them — I have serious reservations — but I am curious what our attitude towards her says about us. We are a highly polarised society, with terrible social indicators and a very poor scorecard on how women are treated in this country. I don’t believe women leaders automatically means an improvement in women’s rights — looking at you, war-mongering Hillary Clinton — but shouldn’t we wait before giving Maryam an F?

I certainly do not believe she is above scrutiny. By all means critique the video of her helping a female official adjust her dupatta, but to liken it to an assault — as some ‘progressives’ have done on X — is preposterous. Especially compared to the muted response to Imran Khan telling a jalsa in 2022 that Maryam talks about him so much it may make her husband jealous.

Men get away with so much, incl­u­ding say­ing PML-N’s leader Sobia Sha­hid in the KP Assembly was asking for it when she was met with verbal abuse, a shoe thro­wn at her and a lota earlier this week. The what­aboutery always makes the woman the ‘bad guy’.

Women politici­ans all over the world are held to different standards. Their likeability is put under the microscope whereas it doesn’t matter what their counterparts are like. Men’s aggressiveness is a given but women doing something unexpected is well … unacceptable.

It is this double standard rooted in deep gender bias, often unconscious, that needs to change.

I believe the press should pound Mar­y­am, for policies, inaction, siding with cor­p­o­rat­ions over the public, and any favouritism sh­­o­­wn in awarding contracts, for ex­a­m­ple. I have heard men (always men) on TV advise her to dress down to be taken seriously. While I understand what they mean — get your hands dirty — it would not cross their mind to say this about her male counterparts.

Every election in this country has been tainted and that could include Maryam’s. However, she has won votes and needs to win people’s confidence. For that, she needs to be given a chance, not to be confused with a free pass.

The writer is a journalism instructor.

X: @LedeingLady

Published in Dawn, March 3rd, 2024

Opinion

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