A couple of years ago, I had the good fortune to attend two courses in a very prestigious institute of Pakistan. With the advent of the social media, of course, right after the course a Whatsapp group was created. Coming from an all-girls school and a conservative family background, I have never really had an exposure to this type of a forum before.
It was quite evident that certain norms of conversations, pictures and video sharing - where women were the subject of sexual content - from some of the gentlemen in the group seemed to be very acceptable by both genders. No one seemed to find it objectionable. Even if they did, they didn’t speak up, or condemn it. If calling out strangers, belonging to the same alumni, on the internet makes you a ‘social justice warrior’ or ‘feminazi bully’, then that is what I became.
I remember the first time I objected to a video of scantily-clad porn girls, dancing with juggling naked breasts, the women on the group were silent while the gentleman who had posted it said that it was an accidental post and labelled me as ‘moral police’. Well, if calling out and objecting on WhatsApp makes one a ‘moral police’, then I certainly hope we will have many more joining the group.
Many women around the world, coming from more liberal societies, know well what it is like to protest a line of humour and be asked to ‘lighten up’, ‘chill out’ or ‘learn to take a joke’.
Anyone who believes in equality knows there is genuinely no humour to be found in jokes that make oppressing or hating women the punchline. Every joke that relies on hitting or hating your wife reveals a marriage in which one member sees the other as inferior. Every punchline that hinges on stereotypes about female behaviour and sexualising women’s bodies reveals deep misogyny and disrespect for women that one has around them. Men are retreating to the privacy of WhatsApp groups to validate their misogyny, just like we lower our voices and retreat to our living rooms to share our most bigoted thoughts.
Such behaviour sadly is socially acceptable. People who aren’t comfortable with it and dare to call it out are insulted by the hordes of vociferous high school bullies who never grew up.
This occurred a second time when a cartoon sketch of a senior female journalist, in a tight miniskirt with half-exposed hips and her exaggerated breasts protruding obnoxiously out from a half-open blouse, was shared amidst much merriment from the group. I was astonished when the explanation given by the gentleman sharing it was, that she is an Indian agent hence it’s shared on a lighter note.
Why should one witness women being stripped naked, doused in a pond of water and molested by men; all in the garb of showcasing what the other side of the border is doing to its women? Who is actually getting their cheap thrills by sharing this type of content in a mixed forum? Where again, I am the only participant because I respect the institution to which I belong. And, because of my objection, I am threatened, that too by a woman, who is oh-so-loyal to her colleagues and wants to be a part of the ‘inner circle’. All I have to say is that, you may entertain an idea without accepting it, but note that your entertainment stands as encouragement in the eyes of people who have accepted the idea of an unequal society.
The most recent incident which finally drove me to put thought to paper is the swearing involving words ‘mother’ and ‘sister’ that became viral after the recent dharna staged by the so-called maulvis in Islamabad. The videos being shared and the dialogues repeated with great glee on our WhatsApp forum by both genders alike. Mind you, a particularly tired old card is being played: ‘lighten up’, it’s not like that the behaviour of various men sharing is actually bad or inappropriate. ‘It’s just that you don’t get it’ and ‘why are you objecting to the words being used here’, ‘it’s all over social media, go and object there’ and ‘stop being holier than the Pope’.
Basically, comedy has always been a standard defence used by men against claims of sexual impropriety.
The reality of sexual harassment and abuse has also been absorbed into a cultural vocabulary that has almost allowed men to reflect their version of reality. They actually think that women respond positively to their unwanted advances because that’s what men’s stories have always told them.
As a couple of my male colleagues, who have dared to speak out in the group, pointed to why would one use sexual innuendoes on a public forum where women are present, when they would not use them at home in front of their mothers or daughters? It is not women who need to learn how to take a joke - it is men who need to stop acting like one!