Women have been given a new voice via social media. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have provided a unique platform for women and they can now translate their frustration, anger and hopelessness into rants and memes as well as serious activism.
As the #MeToo movement took the global entertainment industry and political institutions by storm, Meesha Shafi dared to speak up about Ali Zafar’s unwelcome advances on Twitter. Since then, more and more women have stepped up, sharing similar stories, and this sparked a national debate on sexual harassment and “call out” culture. Social media also became a battleground for the Pakistani resistance against feminism, labelling supporting statements as “too radical”, calling women “feminazis” and saying “auraton ka damagh kharab ho gaya hai [women have lost their minds]”.
Before we debate the extent and utility of freedom of expression exercised through this platform, it is important to recognise that it’s much more accessible to women who speak English. It’s always useful to keep our privilege in check — “call out culture” is not a viable resource for working class women since domestic abuse and sexual harassment are normalised to some extent within their segments of society.
This doesn’t de-legitimise the micro aggressions pointed out through social media, but is a gentle reminder to social media warriors that so many of our sisters have different sensitivities, and that if we can, we should channel our passion into grass root level social work.
Coming to the women on social media, we should understand where they are coming from. When we women get out of the chaar diwaari [four walls] of our houses onto the streets, there’s a conscious awareness of at least a few hungry gazes on our bodies. We learn to become resilient and endure it but Pakistan, which is as much our home as any man’s, should be a safer place. We shouldn’t always be sexualised. We should be able to feel comfortable hanging around in public spaces like Shadman Park or Race Course Park. A simple critical exercise can reveal a shocking degree of inherent discomfort: ask any of your brothers, cousins or male friends about the counter-measures they take when travelling alone at night or even in the day.
Then ask a woman the same question. Let me give you some options that will be on her list: sharing their live location with a friend, pretending to be on call with a friend when walking on the streets, clutching her car keys in her hands while briskly walking to the car etc. I know these options because they are part of my list too.
Adopting such cautionary measures points to the existence of rape culture. It means that subconsciously, we women are almost constantly engaging in the emotional labour of taking preventative measures against violence by a man.
If we women have to go through these deceptively small inconveniences everyday, why don’t we deserve to own them and talk about them? Everyone has to watch the way they carry themselves in public, but women have to do it in certain negative ways that men don’t. Because women are not only victims but survivors; we wear the cape of a social media warrior and vent our opinions on digital platforms, feeling a tiny bit prouder of ourselves for doing so.
A case can be made for how it negatively affects the perception of feminism in Pakistan and alienates some groups of men and women from joining the movement (if there is one). It is understandable, but do we all deserve to be held to that metric? Do we all deserve to be heralded as feminist icons? I don’t think so. I think that an effort can be made to sensitise ourselves to the sentiments of other women, since we all should try our best to translate our struggles into empathy so that we don’t (intentionally or unintentionally) make others feel as alone, attacked and misunderstood as we have felt.
The balance of political correctness is a hard one, and somewhat subjective. It will differ from person to person. That’s why we and our male allies should develop an attitude of tolerance and try to be as inclusive as possible. The Aurat March follows a similar inclusive philosophy — this year we will have home-based workers, transgender women, disabled women, housewives, Lady Health Workers, students, working women, artists and journalists participating in the March. They all will be united in their expression of love and fighting spirit at 2:30pm on March 8 at the Lahore Press Club. Hope to see you there!