Female objectification and the “bechari” syndrome

From being objectified to self-objectifying, women need to rethink their role in the media.

Ayesha Shaikh December 09, 2013

Women in the media have often been trivialised by being called distasteful names and referred to as a cheez (thing). While some may shrug off such acts as harmless, they connote a deeper, stinging reality of our society — objectification of women.

In day-to-day life, even women in burqas are not spared from some men’s seemingly X-ray vision. In the entertainment industry, portrayal of women as objects to ogle is not recent. It is a longstanding issue that continues to leach into our lives, like the pungent smell of fish that emanates from fish trucks that we sometimes pass by — intolerable yet difficult to contain.

Although female objectification, specifically, sexual objectification in the media has been condemned the world over, little has been said about who is liable for it and what can be done to curb it. How potent is the issue? Are women who allow or play roles that are made to lure men at fault too? Do women like being objectified?

In theory, objectification refers to the phenomenon of treating women as objects that are merely valued for their utility. When a woman’s body is detached from her as an individual, she is essentially viewed as a physical object of the male gaze.

But that is just the tip of the iceberg. Female sexual objectification can be dangerous for a woman’s self-esteem. It can possibly lead her to internalise the experience and begin self-objectifying. However, some women make the conscious decision of being portrayed provocatively and may argue that female objectification is tantamount to female emancipation. Feminist Ariel Levy begs to differ. What she refers to as ‘raunch culture’, young women expressing their sexuality blatantly is not a form of liberation, she says, it’s a betrayal.

Designer Sania Maskatiya says that some women like to dress up provokingly but that’s their personal choice. Acting veteran Samina Peerzada maintains “Every woman has a right over her body. It’s up to her if she wants to flaunt it.” According to her, the violence and bloodshed that are holding the country captive are far more crass and vulgar than portraying oneself desirably.

She shares, “There was a play called Bebak in which I played a flirt. But there’s a certain amount of strength that I brought to the character. The path that I have chosen as an actor has been such that no one could ever exploit me.” Peerzada holds that actors need to utilise their power of “interpreting [the role] and emoting according to their own sensibility.”

Contrary to popular belief, an overly sexualised woman is detrimental to agencies, shares Ali*, who has been in the advertising industry for nearly seven years. He makes an interesting assertion that those female artistes who over-sexualise themselves have actually deterred other women from following in their track. “Most of them have made it big and others who wish to follow their steps, don’t, out of fear of being berated if they can’t make it as big as them,” says Ali*. He feels that the issue is less prevalent in advertising as compared to the fashion industry.

Model Nadia Hussain acknowledges the existence of what she calls perceptual objectification in the fashion industry. “That’s what it’s all about,” she says. She states that designers, although only a few, would want their models to look overly desirable. However, in contrast with Ali*’s remarks, she feels that “advertising agencies, marketing companies and brand managers are the ones who emphasise on including women in campaigns. It’s all about creating a fantasy.”

Hussain feels that when companies allow female objectification, advertising agencies project it and then consumers enjoy it, it ends up becoming a viscous cycle. Even publishing companies have a role to play. “When an advertisement or an inappropriate fashion shoot gets printed in a magazine, other brands and designers wish to follow suit,” she says.

Actor-model Sarwat Gilani feels that female objectification has increased over the course of time. She is thankful that from day one, she has worked with people who have guided her. “They gave me tips, one of which was to never let somebody you don’t share a comfortable relationship with, make physical contact with you.”

Conversely, Maskatiya argues that the situation is changing for the better. “A woman is always viewed as a sex symbol but now, her portrayal is more subtle and intelligent. Even the films and television dramas these days use the power of suggestion to deliver their message,” she says.

Peerzada feels that women playing lead roles in films of the 1980s and 1990s were objectified. “The script was written for men and followed by men,” she says. Peerzada opted out of the film industry in the 1990s and began doing character roles because she felt that she was objectified as a leading lady. On the other hand, she feels that television doesn’t objectify and exploit women.

Is how provocative one is willing to be directly proportional to the success one achieves? Ali* says, “Not all, but a few agencies incorporate mischievous content into advertisements and go by the notion that ‘if you want to make it big, you have to do sleazy things.’”  But he adds that one’s career does get a push if one’s willing to be portrayed as a sex symbol. Maskatiya, for whom intelligence trumps physical appearance during model selection, disagrees. She holds that most advertisements in Pakistan are family-friendly. “Being provocative doesn’t go hand in hand with being successful,” she asserts.

With the constant classification of women as victims of objectification, women have developed what can be called the bechari [helpless] syndrome. By accustoming themselves to the label of bechari, some women exploit the power and leverage that come with being victimised and consciously indulge in self-objectification.

“Yes, women are also responsible for the prevalence of this phenomenon,” says Hussain. “If one woman says no, the other woman would readily say yes, with the argument that ‘ache paise mil rahe hain tou chalo karlo’ [If I’ll get good money, I’ll do it].” Hussain shares that at the time she joined the industry, models weren’t desperate. “The way many new models dress [off the ramp] shows their helplessness and utter desperation. They think this is a guaranteed way of getting popular,” she states.

Gilani also feels that the women who choose to be part of projects that are provocative are at fault. “Victimising women has given them the space to misuse their freedom,” she says. Film and television actor Zeba Bakhtiar says, “It is very easy and convenient for women to accept an objectified existence. It lets them remain dependent and as victims with no real responsibility. The bechari in our society is an absurdly glamorised role model who lacks courage and initiative.” She holds that both men and women are responsible for the pervasiveness of female objectification.

So, how can this issue be curbed? Peerzada feels that “women will be objectified because the media is run by men.” But certain developments could bring about a change. She thinks that in the television industry, a standard needs to be set. Not everyone may be an evolved writer or actor, but they must use their power to think and channelize it productively. Although Peerzada feels that the television industry is in need of more well-rounded actors and writers, she commends the efforts of female writers like Umera Ahmad, Noorul Huda and Haseena Moin and actors such as Sania Saeed, Sarwat Gilani, and Sanam Baloch, among others, who depict the inner strength of women beautifully. “I’m very hopeful for the future,” she says.

Gilani feels that the issue can only be contained if the younger generation in the industry respects and listens to their elders. “If they are open to learning, they can be guided in the right direction,” she says. She thinks that with every passing year, girls are becoming more experimental, but if their values and priorities are intact, they can keep away from the trashy side of things. Girls must draw inspiration from “women like Uzma Gillani, Badar Khalil, Saba Hameed, Rubina Ashraf and Samina Peerzada,” who epitomise class and are exemplary women of the Pakistani media.

Hussain feels that female objectification can be contained if better people join the industry. “Maybe at a later point, I’ll start an institution [to train models],” she says. Ali* argues that “The only way this issue can be curbed by advertising agencies is if they don’t use women in advertisements at all.” He feels that it is not so much the corporate clients, advertising agencies or women in the industry that are to be blamed. “It is the mindset of the people. They will pass nasty remarks at any woman. Women are objectified because of the masses,” he states.

It is imperative that women rid themselves of the bechari image before holding anyone else liable for being objectified. And men who plead guilty of leering at women must rethink their ideals before questioning women’s morality. Like they say, “Taali aik haath se nahi bajti!

*Name has been changed to protect privacy.

Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, December 8th, 2013.


Ariba | 7 years ago | Reply

@just_someone: @Lt Col Imtiaz Alam (retd): by anyway you read I have never defended girls without hijab. Not sure what prompted you to reply.

Amar bil maroof nahi anil munkir. Its because of this concept that we have forgotten that we do not say anything when something wrong is happening & now are so immune to it that we don't find any objection in any wrong doing. We are not talking about those lame concepts of freedom which only appease men who can enjoy looking at us.

Ariba | 7 years ago | Reply @ashish: The Supreme Court has ruled that obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment, but the courts still need to determine what material is obscene in each case. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/UnitedStatesobscenity_law blind followers of american/indian media
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