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Shoe-throwing histrionics

June 27, 2012

IT all began about a week ago as the hot plains of Punjab boiled under the flame of endless hours of loadshedding.

Discussions about money generate their own heat, and the wrangling over the budget in the Punjab Assembly had by this last segment of a volatile Pakistani June already spilled its sides several times.

On the shout-filled afternoon of June 20, 2012, Chaudhry Allauddin, a member of the PML-Q (Unification bloc), accused the women of the opposition who were protesting of destroying the atmosphere of the lawmaking body and of being ‘dancing girls in a death well’.

The women would not take the insult — one that is not uncommonly applied to any woman taking on the burden of public life in Pakistan — lying down. One of them, PML-Q MPA Seemal Kamran, who sits in the opposition benches, took a shoe and hurled it at Chaudhry Alauddin, whose alleged misogyny had reared its head many times earlier in the four-year journey of Punjab’s current parliamentarians.

Her shoe attack received a swift response; within moments, Anjum Safdar, a female parliamentarian from the ruling PML-N, hurled her footgear directly at the opposition benches. With the hurling of shoes, barely contained chaos transformed into unfettered pandemonium, each side asking the other to apologise first, until finally the opposition staged a walkout.

The next day, no one was sorry. When Seemal Kamran, the original shoe-hurler, tried to enter the Punjab Assembly, she was stopped by a posse of female guards.

In a video that circulated all over Pakistani airwaves, women crammed the entrance in a mad mix of jostling arms and limbs all aimed at preventing the legislator from entering the premises. The reason they proffered was that the assembly speaker had barred Ms Kamran from entering the House for the next seven days.

Ms Kamran would not have it; there were pushes and slaps and screams and tears; a four-hour protest followed outside the gates of the assembly.

The sun rose higher in the sky, the heat beat down as it had done the day before. Finally, somewhere around midday, Seemal Kamran, her spirit depleted by the heat and the taunts and the cries and the calls, passed out. It was all recorded by the cameras; she went to hospital and gave a statement to the awaiting media.

A public postmortem that followed, one at which the nation and television anchors have both become adept. The story was a juicy tidbit, happily filling the gaps between evaluations of our newest prime minister.

The shoe-throwing parliamentarians of Punjab offered something for everyone.

If you hate women you could grab one more public reason for doing so and use the material for reiterating how their histrionics were destructive for an already flailing system. If you were generally fed up with the lack of decorum among politicians male or female, you could resolve to dig a deep hole to bury your head for the next several months.

As all involved will attest, the next few months promise only further episodes of political ribaldry, rich opportunities for slaps and kicks and shoe-tossing and guard-wrestling.

Few women in Pakistan are politicians or even interested in politics; and so the warring female parliamentarians of Punjab are unlikely to find too many allies among their own gender.

If this were not the case; perhaps some would rankle at the words of Chaudhry Allauddin, whose demeaning intent and virulent delivery state in words what a majority of men appear to believe about the female presence in the Pakistani public sphere.

If you have doubts, rewind the clip and view the expression on the face of the bespectacled, bearded gentleman sitting beside Chaudhry Alauddin as he spews his women-hating taunts. It is a wordless summary of millions of others delightedly confirmed in their doubts about women. Men misbehave all the time; but when women do so it must surely be because they are women.

There is no female solidarity to debate here. In the spectacle at the assembly, the instigator and retaliator of the shoe attacks were women.

Anjum Safdar, who responded by hurling a shoe from the treasury benches, was not incensed at Chaudhry Allauddin’s tawdry tactic of questioning the morals of women of the opposition benches, but rather at Seemal Kamran’s act of physical retaliation.

The dynamic is an important one; and in it lies the answer to why women in parliament are selected more than elected and why their presence in the chamber, regardless of their political position, matters little for others of their gender.

Seemal Kamran and Anjum Safdar —both undoubtedly having faced the ignominy of the jabs and jeers afforded to women in public life — could not unite. Note the common thread of being reduced to performers. In that case, nothing can be expected by others endowed with even lesser power, squashed into even more predictable roles.

Like their sisters across the country, the women of the treasury benches or the opposition benches in the Punjab Assembly are branded by the agendas of the men they represent, busied by the boisterous business of fighting their battle, poking fun and pointing fingers at those ‘other’ misbehaving women on the far side of the chamber.The recent spectacle in the Punjab Assembly then is not an indictment of simply the women or the parliamentarians but of all people. The pandemonium in parliament is not an aberration but an accurate reflection of the chaos, the lack of faith in law or procedure, the inability to respect disagreement or dissent that permeates every other corner of Pakistan.

For Pakistani women, it represents with the acuity afforded by instant recordings — 24-hour news cycles and endless talk shows — a precise picture of how the obsession with the ‘other’ woman has destroyed the lives and hopes of all women.

The writer is an attorney teaching political philosophy and constitutional law.