An open letter to celebrities on inclusivity
Dear Fellow People of the Milquetoast Landscapes of Fame—otherwise known as celebrities,
On behalf of all the oppressed communities, peoples and minorities of Pakistan, allow me to say this: You may be for sale but our pain is not.
If I sound angry it is because I am, but this time my rage is not blinding me—rather, it is making things clearer. So, bear with me as I walk you through a recollection of what I saw, of my interpretation of the events that took place on the 14th of September at 4pm outside the Karachi Press Club.
Trans women in duos and trios started arriving on their motorbikes, some in rickshaws (none of them in cars), flashing posters and signs against violence and rape. Some of them had emerged from their deras around the city while others had interrupted their begging to be there. Some of them were pretty, many of them were dirt poor and almost all of them were undisputedly badass. This scene could have easily been the setting for a gritty photo editorial but not everyone can appreciate this kind of beauty.
Transgender women and the khwajasira community had decided to protest the violence regularly perpetrated with impunity against them across Pakistan. As they started chanting, “Hum zulm sey maangain aazadi,” (We will demand freedom from brutality) some members of the press got into a scuffle with two young transgender activists and threatened to break their faces. I caught this on video. Moments later, members of the press club intervened by ordering journalists to stop covering what they said was a “badtamiz” (rude) community. Trans leader Bindiya Rana pleaded against being censored. Nevertheless, the transgender women continued with their protest against violence—even though ironically they had just been subjected to ‘violence’ from a group of men who considered it their purview to police their behaviour in a public space where everyone has been welcome to rudely protest for decades. The press club men attempted to force what they deemed to be ‘civility’ upon a protesting group of trans people.
This continued until Frieha Altaf showed up. To her this was not a public space but a venue. She was in her event management element, ordering the men selling limoo soda to make space. That day the thella wallahs were selling snacks and drinks at a discount as a token of class solidarity with the protestors. But who wants that image in a carefully orchestrated PR press release?
In addition to the trans protest, the space outside the Karachi Press Club was also being occupied by Dow medical students who are being evicted from their hostels. They and the transgender women protesting nationwide misogyny were apparently hogging too much of the narrow road and taking too much time. “Ab hamari baari hai,” Frieha Altaf announced. She was flanked by actor Yasir Hussain—no alien to the world of transphobia given his comments for his project Help Me Durdana.
Within five minutes, the press club road was split into two, the transwomen on one side and on the other, after a wall of cameras and PR handlers, the Sarwat Gillanis and Adnan Siddiquis of the world who were giving their banal statements to the camera. If one were to go by her poster, Sarwat equated “raped” with “rapped” (Tip: don’t leave spelling to interns next time.) You would wonder that for a social class so enamored with the language of the colonizer, it would care to maintain its standards of spelling. But buckle up; the evening of disappointments had just begun.
As more from the celebrity brigade arrived, the media abandoned the transgender women and rushed to find spots. Ayesha Omar, Sheema Kirmani, Mahira Khan, a muscular man in a white shirt who seemed to think he was an actor, were joined by wannabes and social climbers. Police came for their protection but it was not clear what the dangers lurking outside the press club were.
The transgender women began leaving, after smoking a cigarette or two on the roadside. Their heartfelt conversations with many onlookers were captured by no cameras. This image of Pakistan, in which a man stops his bike with his son to ask transgender women why they were protesting, was not documented. There is nothing ‘spectacular’ about that interaction, because it was not aesthetic or controversial enough. It did not contain enough oomph factor to merit being shared in a frenzy of influencer accounts on Instagram. Think Capitol from Panem but cheaper and dumber.
Still not able to stomach defeat, young trans activist Sara Gill Khan barged into the celebrity crowd and plonked herself next to Sarwat Gillani with her sign but she still never got the microphone or the acknowledgment. Some young transgender fans stuck around so they could catch a glimpse of Mahira Khan, their icon, their hero. As two of them inched in for a selfie, Mahira’s PR team took beautiful shots of them idolizing her. They posted it in black-and-white on Instagram, aesthetic on point. Their transgender identity had successfully been commodified, the price you paid is Insta-likes and the cost their silence. You don’t think it, but this was a transaction.
After leaving for home and musing over how pro-at-protest you’ve all become, you go on an Insta and Twitter frenzy. Your influencer hags repost what you post and then you re-repost what they have reposted until we all drown in your misery of self-congratulation. Your job is done, it was a success. You got your shots, you got your likes, you got your mentions. You have further reified your artificial influencer bubble. The damage you did, and continue to do, will be always invisible to you because you do not face the repercussions of perpetuating this systemic violence ever.
To be a celebrity is to be different. Different is richer. Richer is influential. Random Insta lives are not random, they happen in pretty houses. Many of you deny or delete your history of economic struggles because it is not pretty. It is uncool. And this is where you have missed the zeitgeist. All our struggles are and will always be rooted in classism as you position yourself as the elite Other.
For every young Pakistani person sitting at home whose primary source of information is social media and the media’s scraping of those posts, all they will see is that the celebs protested. They will not know the 200 transwomen who were there as well and were subjected to violence on the spot. They will not know the name of Bori Khwajasira, a 65-year-old transwoman who has been missing for almost three months now. They won’t see the students of Dow Medical College sitting right there.
But they will see you, the celebs.
This is why representation matters and tokenism doesn’t. You do not show the people who look and talk like the People and speak of people’s issues, because it doesn’t sell or amplify your personhood or profile. This displacement removes the common person. And so, you take up too much “jagah,” not them.
Aurat March protested just two days before your curated protest-for-PR event; many of you missed it. A nationwide transgender protest was happening alongside yours, but you ignored it. The gender wars have been waged on both our bodies and on yours. But for far too long we have let our internalized classism and passion for upward social mobility cloud our judgment. In our desire to be different from the poor, we have forgotten that our struggles are one and the same.
If you must use your voice, use it to reform. Make your spaces safe for everyone, especially women and femmes from alternative socioeconomic classes. Denounce sexist producers, directors and actors who stand next to you (cue: Yasir Hussain). Male actors our father’s ages are still cast in problematic lead roles. Systemic change requires systemic reform. And you are part of the system. You are part of the problem.
You cannot profess activism one evening and return to working with problematic persons the next. This only perpetuates the cycle of misogyny. Stop using people’s pain for audience growth. Stop casting transgender characters to claim token inclusivity and then sideline them as they stand right next to you. When feminism sells, you sell it. When the time to practice it beckons, you look away. We are not a commodity, our pain is not for sale.
If I am wrong about this, prove it.
Muhammad Moiz is the face behind Shumaila Bhatti, and Pakistan’s penultimate dragqueen act, Ms. Phudina Chatni. He questions issues of power and representation. He tweets at @TMITalks and Instagrams at @unrelentlesslyyours