Khawaja Asif shouldn’t get away with it

We have very large, forgiving hearts as a society when it comes to offending women. We let it go instantly

Aisha Sarwari June 09, 2016
The writer is a freelance writer based in Islamabad. She blogs at www.aishasarwari.wordpress.com. She can be followed on Twitter @AishaFsarwari

Everyday sexism is much tougher to decipher. It’s difficult to call it out because it is cloaked under the cultural subtext of humour, satire or plain smart-Alec talk. While women the world over are trying to be nuanced about how to put an end to it, here in Pakistan, it is being institutionalised on the floor of our house, blatant and for everyone’s viewing.  The sitting government’s senior parliamentarian Khawaja Asif addressed an opposition party’s (PTI) peer as a “tractor trolley” and said she should work on making her voice more feminine. Sadly, this uncalled for sexist attack on Shireen Mazari was marked by not even a slap on the wrist by the speaker of the house.

Rather than evaluate the lame responses in its aftermath, let us talk about why this happened in the first place. It happened because when Khwaja Asif first insulted a woman of esteem, it was forgiven as soon as that instance was forgotten. We have very large, forgiving hearts as a society when it comes to offending women. We let it go instantly. Everything is palatable. During 2002-07 when Mr Asif was in the opposition, he insulted Mehnaz Rafiq of the treasury benches, calling her a “penguin” because she walked with a slight limp. Mr Asif’s fascination with defining women’s bodies to animate or inanimate objects is better left to personal fetishes. It has no place in a parliament where there is supposed to be a sacredness about moral standards to protect the weak.

Even Benazir Bhutto in her heyday was not spared the sexist comments by none other than the overused prime time TV guest Sheikh Rashid who is known to have made inappropriate comments on the colour of her clothes. The problem is that women don’t go by the male code: you are as powerful as the extent to which you can hurt me. Women reject the power derived from might, but this is not to be confused by the moral authority they can have over a schoolyard bully. Therefore, just because you can get away with a takedown of a woman more often than not, doesn’t necessarily mean that you will each time.

Increasingly people want to see leaders with girth of character, not those with shoddy shot-fused temperaments. Mr Asif may be at the top of his political game now, but when he exits, he will be remembered for the names he called women. He dared to go down the path of putting women in a place he deems below him, all over again because when it happened before, there was no outrage from women themselves. Even now, a unified voice across all party lines against this verbal assault is missing. By asking all women to come out and side with Mazari, I am not advocating female tribalism of any sort. We can disagree with her politics and also go to the extent of disapproving her actions but under no circumstances is it acceptable for any woman to take an attack on her country’s woman parliamentarian lying down. With honour killings as rampant as they are, with girl children not having access to education in many parts of the country and with astounding maternal mortality figures, women cannot expect any protections if the women representing them are being degraded publicly — and the violators get away with it every time.

As a truly Pakistani gimmick, Mr Asif came out with an apology yesterday. The seriousness of it, or the lack thereof is evident that the apology was very half-hearted and that too not offered to Mazari directly. She has rightfully rejected it. There is no such thing as un-stabbing, no such thing as un-insulting and no such thing as unlearning your place in the pecking order. The food chain defining the VIP culture that Mr Asif enjoys is a fast-changing one. He’ll do well to go back to the shore and adjust his misogynist sails before setting off into the sunset.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 10th, 2016.

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COMMENTS (16)

The full story | 4 years ago | Reply | Recommend @Parvez: The only part contributed by Abid Sher Ali is : ... there were unpleasant remarks that the lady made about Mr. Asif which were heard by Abid Sher Ali, as he pointed out at a TV talk show. " Additionally, Abid referred to Arif Alvi's role and that is all. But it is commonly reported in the press and electronic media that Asif asked Shireen to stop interrupting and not succeeding he resorted to his infamous remarks.
The full story | 4 years ago | Reply | Recommend @Parvez: Do not take sides. Watch video clips. PTI abused Shireen Mazari to cause disruption in the National Assembly. Using a women as a shield for disruption is condemnable. You do not consider PMLN sources to be creditable but consider the following for a change: Asyia Naz Tanoli from the PML-N held Dr Mazari responsible for the insult she was subjected to. “I am responsible for the respect I earn,” Tanoli said and added ‘If a woman indulges in hooting at men, then no one would give her respect.” See: http://tribune.com.pk/story/1120468/privilege-motion-mazari-reiterates-demand-apology-asif/
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