Gender and the politics of slander
By: Afiya Shehrbano
Over the last five years, as Pakistan faced its most critical challenges in the realm of foreign relations, the quality of our foreign ministers that has impressed the international community the most has been their appearances. The attention to the ‘handsome’ Shah Mahmood Qureshi and the ‘tasteful’ Hina Rabbani Khar often obscured the worth of their professional contributions and ultimate limitations.
Yet, when Qureshi left the government and the party, he evaded being politically scathed or personally scarred. On the other hand, Khar, despite the power she holds by virtue of her current office and her permanent social class, will most likely be hit by the backlash of the recent politics of slander.
The reason for such a different impact lies in both the way politics and public service has been constructed and affirmed as a male prerogative, as well as in the fact that women politicians such as Khar often attempt to ‘ungender’ themselves in order to qualify and be received as ‘authentic’ politicians. This is particularly true of women who belong to landed aristocracies and are fielded by the patriarchs in their families.
Unfortunately, these women contribute towards validating gender-blind notions by repeating the vocabulary of male politics that reduces women’s needs to be the same as men’s. This is a flawed understanding of gender differences. Even poverty does not affect men and women alike and neither do natural disasters, health, education, employment or laws. As foreign minister, Khar would be only too aware that issues such as terrorism, migratory labour and sex trafficking do not affect men and women in the same manner.
Khar should have learned by now that to be gender-conscious is not a limitation and neither does it mean that women are your only constituency. Conversely, just because she represents a constituency that may be predominantly working class does not mean she, or her government’s policies, are class-conscious. Consciousness is simply awareness, empathy, a politics of recognition of difference and the need, therefore, to address the impact of discrimination and unfairness that follows. The politics of slander that targeted her recently has surely highlighted how gendered politics can be.
There have been women who, despite such privileged access to political leadership, have been gender conscientised and embraced a politics that is gendered. This does not mean that their constituency became ‘limited’ to women, but instead that the awareness of the source of discrimination and unfairness was recognised and a policy step taken to correct it. The source of gender discrimination is not just male sexism; even the pretense of being ‘neutral’ or gender-blind assists in the latent continuity of such discriminatory practices and attitudes.
Regardless of the affirmative policies that women politicians may support with reference to women, the working classes or minorities, ultimately the male obsession with women’s biologies continues to haunt them even – and especially – when they occupy the most powerful seats of leadership. While women in the public sphere threaten conservative men in particular, unfortunately the liberal men and women who remain silent are equally guilty of tolerating, and being complicit in, the practice of harassment by virtue of their silent spectatorship.
It is a symptom of conservative environments however, that such toxicity against women politicians is not penalised. Therefore, it is important to take a clear position rather than doing what most women do and well-meaning, but gender-blind, sympathisers advise – ignore, hide, rise-above or retire from the arena. Such an attitude simply reinforces the power of the bully and the hegemony of male politics.
Khar would be well-advised to pursue a sexual harassment case against the perpetrators of slander and not simply treat it as a legal issue of libel or worse, ignore it. This is because it is important to distinguish the nature of libel and slander when it targets women’s sexuality and biology, rather than their professional conduct. Apart from demonstrating this principled difference, it would also uphold a practical commitment in support of the sexual harassment law that her government has recently passed. The symbolic and tangible worth of such an effort would go a long way for the campaign to embed this law in the psyche as well as policies of the public and private sector and to signify that the issue affects women across all classes.
The message behind such an effort would be that it is not acceptable to target women and belittle their personal esteem or their political worth by rumour, veiled suggestions or innuendo in relation to their gender. It should also spark a discussion about the importance of boundaries between the person and her contributions to the office she is employed for. This is important not just for women in power but more so for those vulnerable women who have no role-model to emulate or take succour from.
It is critical to censor the zealots who feel free to attack women for daring to enter the privileged male public realm. It is imperative to expose the hypocrites who heroically defend their own wives, sisters and daughters from harassment but giggle in their beards and sleeves, and laugh at the sexist jokes against women in parliament who serve Pakistan more than their unpaid, domesticated home-makers. It was a mistake that Nilofar Bakhtiar did not stand her ground against the men of her own ‘liberal’ party in 2007 – a precedent that should be corrected now.