Being in the digital bodywork of modern age today is like participating in a buzzer round of some popular game shows where you have to beat everyone to the punch. The only difference is that questions are not meant to acquire objective answers, in fact they are asked to cover and further ulterior motives, sometimes to dig skeletons and at other times to hide. The same thing crossed my mind a couple of months back when international media erupted over the news of Saudi women winning the right to drive. Some welcomed the change and claimed it to be the first step towards repairing the ‘sexist’ reputation of the kingdom in the Western world, while others argued it to be just a cosmetic change brought about to appease the West.
What is too striking to ignore, however, is the West beating the Muslim-majority states to the punch almost every time, making the latter supposedly one of the most sexist populations in the eyes of the world. The elements of sexism in this part of the world are undeniable, but it is fascinating how and what you can achieve with the right set of media tools. All you need is a high beam spotlight absolutely laying bare one corner of the room and making it so obvious that the rest of the room is largely forgotten in a dark and happy state. So, I think it is high time that we lighted up some other parts of that room.
Most of the advertisement industry in the West is soiled with stains of sexism. Carl’s Junior, one of the leading fast food chains in the US, has recently decided to bid farewell to its old ways of thinking, but for most part of its operations, it has indulged in rabid sexism by using scantily-clad women to sell burgers.
Let’s expand it further, and ponder over the shallow image of women created by deodorant companies, that men can woo women only by wearing ‘good’ perfumes. This year, German car manufacturer Audi faced a severe backlash over the sexist advertisement it released in China that compared used cars to women, but this was not a one-off event. Sexism has always been blatant in the marketing strategies of almost all the leading automobile companies with female models and beaches remaining a common denominator. According to Nielsen data, last year advertisements during the super bowl game, which is one of the most widely watched event in the US, included a commercial that compared fruits to contours of women.
Talking about sports, the crowning jewel of American sports landscape, National Football League, has always been on the forefront in objectifying women, and hidden in haze of sports tradition is the phenomenon of cheerleaders that reeks of sexism. It is not limited to the NFL, but here it comes with its ironman suit on as it does not only employ women to wear skimpy outfits and cheer for its assigned team, it also uses them as sex objects to sell franchise gears and souvenirs. One cannot even access the cheerleaders’ page of one of the NFL franchises without the understanding that ‘mature’ content will appear. Therefore, the argument that cheerleading is an exercise to pique women’s interest in sports turns out to be outlandish. In fact, it is a way of selling women to the gaze of sexist men under the garb of a longstanding tradition.
This is not to discard the progress made by the West in terms of raising the status of women, as they have undoubtedly been the leaders in lifting the socioeconomic status of women, but certain aspects like the ones mentioned above have remained largely stagnant. If we look into the matter of objectifying women, the Muslim world seems to have fared better because although it has limited the number of economic roles women can play, it has largely refrained from the West’s practice of using women’s bodies to sell its products. In fact, its advertisement industry has used the domestic roles of women to sell products like cooking oils and detergents. It surely does not even come close to matching the potential women have but there still is a distinct difference between the narratives of these two genres of commercials as one treats women simply as pieces of flesh while the other at least depicts them as living breathing human beings.
We all have skeletons in our closets but they tend to be ignored until they are dug out of the oblivion, and the truth of the matter is that there is still a lot wrong with how the West treats its women, and similarly there is extensive ground that needs to be covered by the Muslim world in giving women their rights. Therefore, if both ends of the world really want to empower women, it is time to break the blinkers on the spotlight, because after all, the elements of sexism vary in nature across both societies and who knows they might end up learning from each other, and there will come a time when we can sell mango juice without using an actress making suggestive gestures.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 22nd, 2017.