I once interviewed the veteran columnist Ardeshir Cowasjee on live television. Knowing his propensity for profanity, I began by saying, “Cowasjee sahib, yeh live TV hai. Please aaj gali nahi.”
Cowasjee, hands resting on his cane, fixed me with what could only be described as a Churchillian look of contempt and drawled, “sala!” Everyone laughed.
The cameramen laughed. The producer in my ear laughed. Even my wife, the co-host, laughed — somewhat uncharitably I might add. Everyone laughed, except me that is. Don’t get me wrong. I am happy to poke fun at myself. I just didn’t understand why he had called me his brother-in-law? Why was this funny? It seemed a peculiar response.
Was this considered a swear word? It was left to my wife to explain all during the next commercial break. Sala, she told me, was indeed an insult because it alluded to the fact that the person was having carnal relations with your sister. I glanced over at Cowasjee sahib. To be honest, he didn’t look up to the job. The etymology of swearing reveals fascinating insights into differing cultures. What some countries find a mild insult, other countries will find exceptionally rude and vice-versa.
For example in Catholic countries such as Italy the greatest insult is to suggest you’ve had intimate relations with someone’s mother. Not a surprise when you consider how revered motherhood and especially the Virgin Mary is in these societies. In the more puritanical, Protestant parts of the world the crudest abuse usually involves the genitalia or the act of copulation. Meanwhile, here in the subcontinent it’s all about women.
Which brings me to the media’s coverage of the Shoaib Malik–Sania Mirza shaadi shenanigans. Forget their reductive abbreviation of their names into Shoania. Apparently some unknown style guide has now made it obligatory for all journalists to truncate celebrity couple names. Forget the endless wall-to-wall coverage that certain ‘news’ channels gave to the newlywed’s arrival in Pakistan — breathless coverage that would have put Armageddon itself into second billing on that day’s news.
No, the most repugnant aspect of the media coverage has been the incessant misogynistic tone. Pakistani coverage has been nauseatingly smug and triumphant. Meanwhile, Indian commentators look as if they are swallowing wasps when discussing the union. Why such divergent reactions?
Surely we should just be happy for this talented young couple without any of the hullabaloo? But this being India and Pakistan there needs to be a winner and a loser. And the Pakistani media is treating this wedding as if overnight India has collectively gone from being its neighbour to its sala. Nor has this tone been restricted to the media.
There is even an odious Facebook page entitled ‘We took Sania. We are ready to give Meera in return’ — and it has almost 3,000 fans. Perhaps the media coverage of this story has merely reflected the feelings of their respective countries. But don’t we in the media have a responsibility to resist the latent misogyny in our societies?
On the one hand the media highlights the most outrageous examples of female abuse in our society from gang rapes to Taliban beatings. Yet at the same time, when it comes to stories such as this, we insidiously perpetuate a chauvinistic, misogynistic narrative.
If we are ever going to truly improve women’s’ rights in the subcontinent, we need to change society’s attitude. Instead, the media has not only condoned this behaviour but promoted and disseminated it. It should stop.
I, for one wish Shoaib and Sania all the happiness in the world. Ignore the media chatter and enjoy your new married life together. I did hear one disturbing piece of information though.
Apparently they are planning to set up home in Dubai. What the ******!
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