KARACHI: A discussion, titled ‘Gender in the Time of the #MeToo Campaign’ at the Karachi Literature Festival was supposed to include panelists Aurelie Salvaire, founder of Shift Balance, MNA Nafisa Shah, transgender activist Kami Sid and research Haris Gazdar, however, Shah’s empty seat left the panel unable to tackle the issues it was meant to.
With very little reference to the international #MeToo campaign, the panel appeared more interested in tackling issues surrounding gender equality in economics and the social stigma faced by members of the transgender community.
“I find more feminists in the lower middle class than in the upper class,” said Salvaire, and at that point it appeared as if the discussion circled around the injustices that women face being the supposedly ‘inferior’ sex.
She stressed the need for women to control the narrative and reiterated that patriarchal structures that control the narrative are powerful. In order to break that, women must control the way a story is told. Defining feminism for the audience, she said, “Feminism believes men and women should have the same rights and opportunities.”
The panel and discussion seemed more about feminism than it did about the problems of sexual harassment or abuse at workplaces or otherwise. The only time this issue was addressed was when Sid, who identifies as a transgender, stated that people of her community go through volumes of sexual abuse and violence in both public and private spaces.
The first part of the discussion was spent on women’s role in Pakistan’s economy. Gazdar spoke about the inclusion of women in policymaking, in the determination of wages and the gender disparity. “If women’s work is appreciated and wages are set, the economy would progress a lot more,” he said.
Salvaire said women can gain empowerment through unity. She cited an example of women of Iceland who protested and boycotted work for one day in 1974 and the country was paralysed. She said that if the women of Pakistan would unite to such an extent, they can also achieve equality.
In response, moderator and author Bina Shah said women in Pakistan have multiple fears – being killed and physically attacked being among them – which is why taking it to the roads is not a feasible option. Iceland’s women did not have to face issues of gender, culture and society to perhaps revolt against the patriarchy but women of Pakistan, undoubtedly, do, she said.
The panel then turned to Sid, who was perhaps the life of the panel, as she tackled multiple issues that the transgender community faces. “Gender is in our heads, sex is between the legs,” she asserted, shedding light on the fragile social conception that is gender.
Shah’s empty seat haunted the panel as they were unable to address issues that would have otherwise been highlighted. Multiple questions were left unanswered due to her absence.
The panel then discussed what it means to be a man today. Being the only man in the panel, Gazdar was passed the mic to tackle this question, as he explained the ‘burden’ of being a man in a patriarchal society. He spoke about how Pakistani culture and society instilled certain values and roles into a man. He elaborated on how men must ensure protection, safety and security of women. The speech appeared to be an eerie echo of the white man’s burden, which implies that it is the white man’s job to teach the ‘inferior’ races how to live.
Speaking to The Express Tribune, Gazdar narrated a story of when he traveled to India and felt the need to save his female companions from sitting next to an unknown man in an Indian cinema. The women, however, found his behaviour funny and said they are responsible for their own protection. “The idea that men must protect women appears to be ‘mental’ in India while it is regarded as ‘respectable’ in Pakistan.”
Gazdar added, “It’s difficult for a man to be ‘soft’ in today’s time,” pointing out that men who reject the norms of masculinity are frowned upon in our society.
The only faint reference to the #MeToo campaign was when Salvaire said, “Use social media platforms among others to spread information and awareness, hashtags and headlines can increase exposure.” While the panel was meant to discuss the role of gender and the way it has changed throughout the Harvey Weinstein scandal, there was no mention of it throughout the hour-long session.
While the panel discussed multiple important issues of gender, not just of men and women, but also transgenders, it failed to capture the international impact of the campaign and seemed to be more of an analysis of the current socio-economic and political landscape of the country.