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Beyond the stereotype

March 21, 2011


RECENTLY, I turned on the television to watch a morning show on one of the local channels. The programme was meant to celebrate women for International Women’s Day, so they’d gathered an eclectic group of guests including a famous actress, a social activist-cum-blogger, a psychiatrist, a designer and a guest who had even brought her child on the set. I was excited: I expected an intense discussion on issues that concern women today: the work-family life balance, sexual harassment in the workplace, the rights of women in Pakistan, education for girls, work opportunities for women. What a great way to spread the message across the nation that women are a vital part of Pakistan’s economy, that their health and well-being will ensure a successful nation, that women are equal to men in every way.

The producers of the show, however, decided that 21st century Pakistan wasn’t ready for such a controversial message or such challenging subjects first thing in the morning. The show’s host, in full makeup and blow-dried hair, wearing an outfit more appropriate for a society luncheon than a morning television show, turned to the famous actress, and said, “So, Apa, what do you do to keep yourself looking so beautiful? What’s your beauty and health regimen?”

The actress, without missing a beat, replied, “Well, a good diet is important... and to think good thoughts ... Drink a lot of milk. And women shouldn’t smoke. It’s bad for the skin.”

The social activist’s face fell. The child in his mother’s lap cried out. And I realised I’d witnessed 90 million Pakistani women’s hopes for a better day smashed into the ground. It couldn’t get worse than that, I thought, but I was wrong: the conversation devolved into the most inane commentary about women I’ve ever witnessed on television: the psychiatrist said that working women neglect and abandon their children; the designer said that women should wear modest clothes and that a woman was most beautiful in the form of a mother. They couldn’t have done a better job of upholding the patriarchy than if they’d been a group of stern-faced conservative tribals from one of those regions of Pakistan where women are told there are only two occasions they should leave their houses: their weddings and their funerals.

Welcome to bimbo-land, folks. Where the men are men and the women diminish themselves and each other, turning themselves into one-dimensional caricatures where beauty is the only measure of a woman’s worth, where academics, achievements and accomplishments pale beside your marital status and the number of children you’ve had. Do you like living here? Because I certainly don’t.

Take a trip with me to the other side, where women are working hard to reclaim space for themselves in the public sphere, in safety and dignity. There’s a campaign being run right now called Take Back the Tech, where women are using technology to fight violence against women.

This is a collaborative campaign, anchored by a website that brings together women from all over the world: the Pakistani chapter is run by IT powerhouse Jehan Ara, who mobilises women to write, connect and disseminate information about technology-based harassment: cellphones, camera phones and social networking sites. The message of Take Back the Tech is that women do not have to suffer this harassment in silence: by sharing stories, providing support and encouragement, and showing their strength in numbers, women can work together to reduce or even eliminate gender-rooted violence and sexual harassment in the workplace and home.

Then there’s, a new website that’s the dream-child of broadcast journalist Naveen Naqvi and blogger Sana Saleem. Here you can find digital stories of people who have endured and survived abuse, who offer resistance and struggle in the place of submission and defeat. A large part of the site is devoted to women who have survived sexual abuse, a taboo subject in Pakistani society. But by giving a voice to these women, the message offered is that these survivors are not alone, that there is hope of a future beyond their traumatic experiences.

The digital stories, technology’s newest medium, are graphic: Zainab tells her story of surviving two acid attacks, and her burnt, disfigured face remains in your memory long after the clip has ended. But her voice is full of strength and courage, and she even laughs at the end; she is an empowered woman, not a victim, and we are better people for having listened to her tell her story.

Finally, there’s the Ladiesfund Women of Achievement awards, a ceremony launched by Uzra Dawood three years ago, in which women are recognised and appreciated as trailblazers, pathfinders and icons in Pakistani society for their professional and personal achievements. The winners of 2011 included Anita Ghulam Ali, educationist; Rehana Hakim, journalist and editor; Rabia Gareeb, IT journalist; Naseem Hameed, South Asia’s fastest woman; while the Woman of the Year award was given to the entire Pakistan women’s cricket team.

If I ever wanted to weep tears of rage at the inequality shown to Pakistan’s women, they were replaced on that day with tears of pride as I saw these amazing women stand up and be applauded for their accomplishments.

So, all is not lost when it comes to women in Pakistani society. It’s a battle between the bold and the beautiful, the brilliant and the bimbo; and popular opinion, advertising, and money right now weighs heavily on the side of mediocrity. But I have no doubt which side will win in the end.