Op-ed

A list of struggles

 

Mina Malik-Hussain

Here we go around the mulberry bush, again. Our little universe has been shaken by all the political brouhaha that came to a boil last week, and now another kettle has whistled; an allegation of sexual harassment. This being good old sexist Pakistan, naturally the internet exploded in a fiery ball of death threats and acid attack threats and all the usual charming invective men quickly dig out of their arsenal of online war. People defending the accuser have been called the usual feminazi hand-wringing liberal, people who think the accuser is talking rubbish and are retrogressive halfwits (although not as bad as a Nazi – liberals need to learn to be more vicious in their insults). But let’s look, for a minute, at the larger picture. A powerful man made unwelcome overtures to a woman much lower on all the spectrums of office, power and wealth than him. She didn’t say anything (in public) for several years. This is nothing new. This happens all the time. Most of the women reading this column know what I’m talking about when I say that women are harassed so much and so persistently that on one level, we have conditioned ourselves to ignore all the unwelcome, creepy attention and just get on with it. It’s already so hard to make a place for oneself in a public space, be it school or the workplace, that adding “lecherous co-worker/boss/teacher/complete stranger” to the list of struggles is exhausting to contemplate. We’re already being talked down to, being mansplained to, being called “bibi” condescendingly when we express any kind of emotion and being judged when our home lives interrupt our work/public lives. We are already dealing with having to work twice as hard for half as much money and credit. So when someone sends you a dirty text, you pick your battles, quite frankly. You bide your time, and you plan how to deal with it. Sounds Machiavellan, doesn’t it? That’s what disenfranchisement does to a person.

 

Sure, the political agenda behind this particular accusation is a valid concern. Why now, people squawk indignantly. Why ever not, I wonder. If I had been harassed and I wanted revenge, I’d pick a time when it would cause the most damage to my abuser. That seems obvious enough, but we can’t look past our patriarchal egos long enough to consider a devious woman. Is she lying? Who knows? That’s for a court to decide, and for her abuser to prove. It is not the responsibility of someone who has been abused to prove it, beyond a shadow of a doubt, because most abusers do it in ways that cannot be “proven”. Abusers are by definition manipulative scum, and like most villains are clever enough to do their vile activities in ways that their victims can’t necessarily prove. How can you “prove” the unsettling feeling when that nasty friend of your father’s tried to sit you on his lap? How can you furnish proof of someone touching you in an empty room – because they certainly won’t do it in plain sight of other people, will they. How can you translate, in intelligible, weighty terms, the leering up-and-down look you get from your boss every morning, or a colleague twice your age “discussing” marrying you? You only have your word against someone else’s, and when you are a woman and your abuser is a man then, as we have clearly and obviously seen during these past few weeks, your word means nothing.

 

For survivors of abuse, this is all too familiar. There is always, always some reason available to explain it all away, because it’s an extension of “boys will be boys” and you’re (usually) not a boy. Why were you home alone? Why did you talk to him afterwards? Why didn’t you say something before? Because abuse – any kind of it, from creepy texts to full on assault – is frightening. It makes you sick to your stomach. It is something hideous you don’t have vocabulary for. Because, as Margaret Atwood so aptly puts it, “men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them”. Men terrify women all the time in order to exert power, and abuse is the finest form of executing that terror. Is it really so surprising then, that instead of unleashing a celestial fury upon your harasser like an avenging Medusa, you cower? Women are told to be silent, all the time. To do ‘sabr’. That somehow it must have been our fault, for some reason. So how is this any different? It’s like telling a child that hitting is wrong, and then telling them to punch their bully.

 

For a nation obsessed with ghairat and izzat, we certainly seem to throw it out the window whenever we choose. Obviously ghairat only applies to women, and their conduct. The onus of izzat is only a woman’s burden to bear. So here is a woman, appealing to all of us, to help her restore her lost izzat. Why aren’t we leaping to the task? Where’s your izzat now? In your tweeting about your plans to throw acid on a victim’s face. In your lofty, more-rational-than-thou “analysis” of the situation that only thinly veils your contempt for a woman who has tried to say the unsayable. She’s garbled on national television whilst being grilled by our notoriously horrible talk-show hosts? Astonishing. She is flustered whilst being attacked left and right by the rage of the patriarchal hornet’s nest? Gobsmacking! Not only should Ms Wazir have reported her harassment in a specific way, she must also deal with it in a similarly specific way in order for her narrative to be given any value. A friend of mine wistfully said, imagine a world where women were believed the way men are, all the time. Wouldn’t it be a better world for everyone?

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Mian Bilal

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