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Gender insensitivity

June 21, 2012

BOTH in politics and in the media, language used regarding female colleagues has in recent days betrayed a shocking lack of gender sensitivity. MPA Sheikh Allauddin’s tirade in the Punjab Assembly on Wednesday against some women members focused not on the quality of their arguments, but on their gender. They were lumped together and criticised not for their political points of view, but essentially for being women of what he considers objectionable character. The implication is depressing: simply by venturing outside the home to participate in the public sphere, Pakistani women open themselves up to allegations of not being ‘respectable’. And voiced by an elected official, this point of view will only reinforce some of our society’s worst stereotypes. But a mindset that singles women out on the basis of their gender is not limited to the political sphere. In one television talk show that aired after the Malik Riaz interview scandal, an anchor argued that Mehr Bokhari, co-host on that programme, was given the professional opportunities she has had because channels want to hire pretty faces. Regardless of any questions about Ms Bokhari’s journalistic ethics, she does not deserve to be evaluated on the basis of her appearance. This is a deeply sexist point of view — when was the last time someone claimed a male journalist was hired for being good-looking? The work any woman does deserves to be judged on its merit, or lack thereof, and not by any other factor that would not be applied to her male colleagues.

Even more unfortunate is the fact that some women have internalised these stereotypes. Take, for example, women MNAs throwing glass bangles at the finance minister last year as a form of insult, or the war of words between two women MPAs from the Sindh Assembly in which one thought it would be amusing to accuse the other of trying to assert herself by wearing more make-up than others. The media and our politicians set the tone of the national debate, and they are doing Pakistani women a disservice by reinforcing sexist viewpoints.