0 8 min 1 yr

(First published on October 17, 2020)

A well-known investigative journalist recently took a screengrab of a female workout instructor from a TV morning show and tagged Prime Minister Imran Khan in a tweet urging him to ban on-air vulgarity. The woman in the tweeted picture was fully clothed as she helped her audience (mainly stay-home women) stay healthy through exercise. How was this vulgar? And did this tweet amount to the abuse of the bully pulpit a journalist receives when his professional work is recognised?

The same gentleman’s tweets about a biscuit commercial forced the country’s media regulator to issue an advisory to advertisers and broadcasters to be more mindful that their advertisements correspond with the nature of the product. The said advisory is a work of art in itself. See for yourself. “It has been observed with concerns that themes of advertisements of ordinary consumer products like biscuits, surf, etc., being aired on satellite TV channels are not corresponding with the disposition of these products. The trend is causing unrest and behavioural disturbance among the viewers being not only in violation of the commonly accepted standards of decency but also the socio-cultural norms of Pakistani society.” I had to buy a pack of biscuits to learn the ‘disposition of the product’. Perhaps there was a particularly decent way to eat biscuits and yours truly was oblivious to that noble way hence causing ‘behavioural disturbance’ among the people around him. I was compelled to pull up the said video and judge for myself.

And there it was. A fully-clothed female actor was dancing in a gala. That in fact DOES correspond with the product’s brand name. But there it was again clear as a day. A woman dancing on a stage. I was finally getting to know what the gentleman considered vulgar. A woman’s body even if it is fully covered.

I bring up the matter because in this country there exists a set of people who would go around banning things just because they offend their sensibilities. And invariably the chief concern remains the same. The conduct of women in public. If a man wears a mawashi like cloth belt to barely cover his modesty during a televised kushti or kabadi match that is culture. If a woman appears in a fully covered tracksuit to share workout instructions it is vulgarity. But how does it work? You cannot wish away half of the country’s population. Especially now, when the global economic competition necessitates that every adult member of the population contributes directly to the GDP. Perhaps women would be allowed to get away with the vulgarity of work if they cover themselves head to toe and pretend, they do not exist? But while typing this I am reminded of a video clip from Karachi where a few years ago a girl clad in a burqa was lifted off of the back of a slow-moving motorcycle by certain street goons. It pains me to say this but I am sure the apologists of bad behaviour will manage to find fault with the conduct of this poor woman. Perhaps if she was heavier, they couldn’t lift her off of the bike.

Do you realise how much effort goes into diverting attention away from this toxic masculine behaviour? Whenever a rape case surfaces the first impulse is to blame the victim. Invariably. Why did she put herself in such a position? Evidently, the state cannot guard every road, every nook, every cranny, every alleyway. Hence, women should not come out in areas and in hours when men become brutes. Should men be allowed to turn into brutes? Should the state which has adequate resources to police our airwaves and internet traffic take leave of absence from its duty to protect the lives and safety of its female subjects? Why should they always have to prove their innocence? Why should they be the sole repositories of a family’s shame and honour?

When victim-shaming doesn’t make the scandal threatening to challenge the masculine mystique doesn’t go away, the obfuscation artists switch gears. Demand that the rapist be hanged in public. Two benefits. The outrage about rape becomes the outrage against the hypothetical flaws in the justice system. Collective responsibility for bad behaviour effectively evaded. The second benefit — if this somehow succeeds, more toxic entertainment for the bloodthirsty.

When this does not work, the next trick, blame everybody but yourself. Especially sensory and visual inputs. The vulgarity on television, exposure to Western culture is eroding the value system in the society. Then the very same elements go and start advising politicians and hence this becomes a policy problem. But here is the thing. Rape incidents have consistently occurred in our societies even when television did not exist or was unaffordable for the general public. Many of us have been brought up with full exposure to Western culture but none of us ever thought of violating anyone’s personal space what to speak of making unwarranted advances. Only a sick and toxic group culture can be held responsible for the mindset that views himself as the hunter and women as the prey. These things are highlighted here because in the motorway rape case much before the main culprit was apprehended, we had completed the above-mentioned cycles comfortably.

In uneducated and hyper-conservative circles victim blaming has been the norm for a long time. However, in educated circles, the fear of liberated women is a recent phenomenon. Women with liberal outlook were among the first few boosters of General Musharraf’s enlightened moderation. But the Mukhtar Mai case changed that and that too because of petty grassroots politics. The accused in the case were political constituents of the local PML-Q MPA. When the scandal was first unearthed the said MPA, a rather uncouth and uneducated man known to me, held his peace because the storm was too big. But when the pressure subsided, he got to work, poisoning minds, sowing seeds of doubt, and plotting against the victim. And very soon Mukhtar Mai was a bigger national security challenge than India and terrorism combined. General Musharraf’s subsequent outbursts did more damage to the discourse around women than any conservative’s work could. Perhaps, he can undo this unwitting damage by standing up for victims of similar recent crimes. The other party that owes its success to women to a great degree is the ruling PTI. If it also starts lending its ears to such regressive elements, we may totally become an anti-woman society.

The time is opportune to stand up for the rights of half of this country’s population and stop blaming everything else from a pillar to a lamp post for such crimes. The majority of men do not condone such bad behaviour. But their tolerance of the presence of such malcontents in their midst brings us all a bad name.

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