Urooj Zia: Woe unto women

Jan 2nd, 2011 | By | Category: Pakistan Today

Today’s Pakistan Today includes a disturbing look at the way women are treated by media. In her article, Urooj Zia uses the recent mistreatment of a gang rape survivor in Karachi as a starting point to explain that this was not an isolated incident, but part of a larger pattern of misogyny present across the profession of journalism. For all the feigned concern about Aafia Siddiqui as ‘daughter of the nation’, Urooj Zia shines an uncomfortable light on how we actually portray our daughters on TV and in the newspapers. It’s not enough to praise the women’s cricket team for winning the Asian Games, and its not enough to be outraged when women are attacked if we sit by idly while the attitudes that result in such acts are encouraged on our TV sets.

Urooj Zia’s article below…

This past month has been a particularly bad one for the women of Pakistan who have been repeated targets of the abysmal lows of public discourse in the country.

To kick things off in December, Advisor to the Sindh Chief Minister on Information and Archives damned a gang-rape survivor in Karachi by passing extremely judgemental remarks against her while the woman was still at the police station. Sections of the media followed it up and fed further into the ‘she-asked-for-it’ narrative by airing unrelated details of the survivor’s lifestyle. When called to task by quarters concerned about her frivolous remarks, Farooqui went ahead and made a full-throttle attack on not just the survivor, but also NGOs – as to what the latter had to do with the incident is still unclear.

Journalist Orya Maqbool Jan went as far as to claim in a column, based on hokey ‘research’, that a majority of women actually fantasise about rape. One is forced to marvel at brain functions that result in gems such as these. Former Jamaat-e-Islami MNA Amira Ehsan, who has somehow managed to wrangle a column in a dismally right-wing publication, also launched into a verbose rant, blaming the Karachi gang-rape survivor for ‘living with someone’, being ‘away from her family’, ‘leading the rapists on’ by ‘partying till 3 a.m.’, and even – gasp! – renting a car. In her attempt to blame everyone except the alleged rapists for their crime, she claimed that the men’s parents were at fault for ‘working hard to keep them away from Islamic teachings’. One would really like to ask Ehsan how she knows such personal details of the alleged rapists’ lives, because if she does, then she certainly knows who they are, and in the interests of fair-play – an extremely Islamic concept – she is duty-bound to either assist police officials who are investigating the case, or face charges for obstruction of justice.

Media houses, meanwhile, displayed astounding levels of hypocrisy, by portraying a relatively liberal line in their English-language publications, and feeding into vile, anti-women narratives in their Urdu-language papers and channels. Their English publications lamented the plight of the gang-rape survivor; while their Urdu publications and channels beat the readership and viewership about the head with every excuse under the sun in an attempt to ostensibly exonerate the alleged rapists. Verily, they claim, she asked for it.

More recently, when two political parties went on a public relations rampage against each other, they thought fit to cast aspersions at the women in each other’s families. How does that affect the polity of this country, pray tell. And if it doesn’t, can you really refer to yourself as ‘progressive’ while making misogynist attacks? In neither case was this a one-off thing. The PML(N) has a history of spewing venom against female politicians; while the MQM has a history of misogynist commentary against women associated in any way with their opponents.

If this weren’t enough, ‘senior analyst’ Mujeebur Rehman Shami came on air to discuss these goings-on, and declared that only women fought like this. One would ask him what women had to do with the entire incident, especially when all the public mudslingers in this case were men. If the job description for senior analysts was changed to include the perpetuation of pointless sexist stereotypes, I’ve missed the memo.

One would, however, be making a grave mistake in dismissing all of this as the rants of the uninformed, for they feed into and are fed by dominant narratives from society. Brought up on a steady diet of the denial of their own feminity, women in South Asia are taught to dislike their bodies at a very early age. ‘Cover up,’ they’re told, ‘or risk harassment or barbarity’. They’re forced into the role of being caretakers of the family’s izzat and ghaerat, as such being denied agency over their bodies and lives. After a decade or so of seminal negative programming about their own selves, women grow up believing that refusing to be part of the prevalent misogynist mindset is tantamount to being responsible for all the ills of society; and standing up against injustice or even daring to be one’s own self would result in being cast aside as an ‘abnormality’.

With such a war being waged against ‘the feminine’, should one really be surprised when survivors and victims of gender-based violence end up carrying the burden for the crimes perpetrated against them? When women are denied the basic right of access to public space, they invariably end up carrying the blame for crimes committed against their persons. As a society, we need to learn to stop demarcating women into particular roles – those of a daughter, mother, wife, etc. Implying that her self is meaningless without association to men only serves to otherise women who do not fall into these particular boxes, thus leaving them vulnerable to violence.

By Urooj Zia, originally published in Pakistan Today 2 December 2010.

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