Asma and our collective misogyny

Published: February 13, 2018
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The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of biomedical engineering, international health and medicine at Boston University. 
He tweets @mhzaman

The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of biomedical engineering, international health and medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

Manto in his short story The Garland writes about an angry mob that was attacking the statue of Sir Ganga Ram in Lahore. The zealous group had its emotions fuelled by anger and a supposed nationalist fervour. An angry zealot attempted to put a garland of shoes around the neck of the statue of Sir Ganga Ram. The man, attempting to be the leader in humiliating the statue and the memory of Sir Ganga Ram, fell and got injured. Immediately from the crowd, someone shouted, he is injured, rush him to Sir Ganga Ram hospital.

The reaction on the death of Asma Jahangir reminded me of Manto’s words. Those who are the most loud and boisterous on her death, to the point of celebrating (as if they had to do with her untimely passing) would have found Asma by their side if they were wronged by the state, the police, or anyone else abusing their power. She defended those who are voiceless and would otherwise be forgotten as a consequence of culture. She defended those who were marginalised by the powerful institutions. She took on the case of Mukhtaran Mai at a time when the president of the country suggested that women get raped to get a Canadian visa. She took on the case of missing persons in Balochistan, when few wanted to bring it up. Her allegiance was to principles and not parties. When laws were disregarded, she defended the government of the PML-N, and when she felt that Captain Safdar had crossed a line and endangered the lives of Ahmadis in the country, she was among the first one to call it out. Despite criticising the MQM in the past, and the MQM responding in strongest possible words, she even defended the MQM’s right to free speech despite the public sentiment against Altaf Hussain. If the government was on the wrong side, she even defended those who were not Pakistani citizens. The Turkish teachers who had spent a lifetime teaching our children but who were whisked away, in collusion with the Turkish state, despite court orders to protect them, found Asma on her side. This was the career of someone who worked for the core principles of freedom of speech, democracy and transparency in government.

The reaction of hate and vitriol is a reflection of who we as a people have become. Any disagreement with the party line, any diversion from our pre-conceived notions is an automatic certificate in anti-Pakistan credentials. There is also no denying that we as a society cannot deal with strong women who stand up to powerful men, whether in sherwanis, or black coats. Strong women, standing up for basic human rights makes us nervous, uneasy and brings out our worst misogynist self out. This is a failure of our education system and collective social norms that continue to decay with a lightning speed. Somewhere in our collective growth, we have lost the basic human decency needed to disagree, with our dignity intact. Our reaction does little to the memory of Asma, but clearly displays our ugly moral core for all to see.

Perhaps a lesson in how to deal with the death of those who we disagree with may come from the words of Jinnah, who upon the death of Gandhi in January 1948 said that “there can be no controversy in the face of death,” and that “the loss to the Dominion of India is irreparable, and it will be very difficult to fill the vacuum created by the passing way of such a great man at this moment.”

A lesson in history is often more valuable than an impulse to tweet vulgarity. Today might be one such day.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 13th, 2018.

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