Always the woman, never the man

Posted on December 28, 2015

Perhaps, a saner advertisement in our newspapers would have featured Nargis Fakhri firmly clad in a burka or at least a hijab, sitting upright, fawning over her bearded husband toying with his new smartphone. Scratch that. Women should be kept away from newspaper ads altogether. If they are not kept away, they are most definitely being objectified for their looks and we are spreading vulgarity. It is against the ethics of journalism, dignity of women and our cultural norms. But pictures of citizens beheaded by terrorists can be carried in our newspapers. That is kosher. That is okay.

At least that is the message I got from the debate that ensued on social media immediately after an ad appeared on the front pages of some Urdu newspapers. In the visual, Ms Fakhri is lying down in a red dress carrying a phone in her hand. We are now led to believe that somehow this and nothing else jeopardises everything that we stand for — right from our family values to media ethics. But I have a nagging suspicion that the outrage has nothing to do with any of these things. I feel we are outraged because it reminds us of how shapeless and inadequate most of us have become. Then there is the matter of the projection of a woman’s body. I have grown up listening to the clergy’s sermons against the objectification of women in the West. Amazingly, the same rules do not apply to a man’s body. Consider this: even during Ziaul Haq’s time when, in PTV dramas, a woman rescued from drowning in a river was supposed to emerge from the water with her dress and dupatta intact, kabaddi matches with scantily clothed men could be aired on live television. No, a man’s body cannot be objectified. It is somehow a woman’s body that is owned by society and she herself has no say in the matter.

But if it is about religion, then I am really confused. In a Muslim society, as originally envisaged, there is no room for the clergy. Five times a day, Muslims are supposed to relate to God directly. So, the matter of selective collective responsibility in the matter does not arise. I say ‘selective’ because evidently, these cultural sensibilities do not apply in a man’s case. Meanwhile, if this is objectifying women, then so is telling a woman what she can and cannot do. If she is not an object, then society should not be telling her what is good for her. At least not more than what men are told. And here lies the problem. A woman’s objectification will stop only when we start treating her like a person, not an object. And persons usually do have a say in how they are supposed to live. Objectifying a woman for remorseless servitude is no better than objectifying her for her looks. At least she usually has a say in the latter case. Somehow, we have convinced ourselves that our culture and faith revolve around defending a woman against her own will. No faith or culture can and should reduce itself to such parochialism.

As someone who has come across Ms Fakhri’s interviews in the past, I know she is not just a pretty face but a very smart person too. As an American of Pakistani descent, she must think very low of us if she had to rush to her defence and distance herself from the ad. We are better than this. Surely, our culture, family values, faith and professionalism cannot all be about hiding from the fact that women have bodies and minds, too. Need I remind you that in this ad, she is fully clothed. This criticism coming from a society that is pretty used to watching her dancing on cable television in much smaller outfits is highly hypocritical. And, about media ethics, let me remind you that no private media outlet can flourish without advertising. If journalists have the right to be loyal to their profession, so do advertising professionals. I can live with a conservative journalist who has failed to condemn a single atrocity by terrorists. Some people are wired that way. But, since when have our moderates become so parochial?

Published in The Express Tribune, December 25th, 2015.