Polarity of narratives

The space for nuanced debate and understanding seems to have shrunk

It’s always been a fraught debate, this issue of women’s place and identity in society and public spaces in conservative, patriarchal societies like Pakistan. Social media and 24/7 television further flatten the discourse into one side or the other, steamrolling over nuance and the possibility of multiple identities or duality of viewpoints.

As International Women’s Day, celebrated on March 8, rolls around, the combination of social media and social tensions around this issue force it front and centre, at least in Pakistan’s urban areas since 2018. That was when women (mostly young), and some ‘woke’ men, first commemorated this day with the feisty, creative Aurat or Naari March.

Those who ask why women need to claim this day, and these public spaces, in the first place would do well to consider the question, ‘Why loiter?’ raised by Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade in their book about women and risk on the streets of Mumbai. Why Loiter?, in fact, inspired the Girls at Dhabas movement in Pakistan.

The question resonates across South Asia, where women are really not supposed to ‘loiter’.

There are few, if any, public spaces in the region where women can safely do that. If they are out and about in public, it ‘should’ be with a sense of purpose, regardless of their class or economic background. They could be the privileged few who have their own transport to go to work and run errands, or urban working women who have to wait at bus stops to go to their jobs. Those in rural areas and in low-income urban localities can only legitimise their presence in public with chores like fetching and carrying water or firewood or working in the fields.

Basically, conservative societies frown upon women ‘loitering’ in public places. Men can loiter at will. And rampage at will.

While the women marchers neither rampage nor cause any destruction, the response to Aurat March from ‘unwoke’ segments of society has been less than friendly. The slogans and posters carried by the demonstrators evoked a vicious backlash from conservative elements. And the game was on.

Just about everyone with access to a public platform had to voice an opinion on the matter. Some criticism, catalysed by the ‘provocative’ slogans of the Aurat March, came from feminists, including those who support women’s rights. In this digital age, video clips or WhatsApp forwards of such views endlessly do the rounds feeding into a shrill, unforgiving atmosphere.

The Aurat marchers have largely responded defiantly. Why should they tone down their slogans? Why don’t those criticising them take the context into consideration?

Read more: Know your feminists

Today, even as social media provides more space to voice these issues and gives visibility to matters that were traditionally swept under the carpet (or behind the purdah), the space for nuanced debate and understanding different positions seems to have shrunk rather than expanded.

Conservative elements of society have never allowed space for debate. They use different means to stifle uncomfortable questions and differences of opinion.

Is wokeness now posing a similar problem? Ayishat Akanbi, 30, a London-based cultural commentator, DJ, and celebrity stylist, thinks so.

Wokeness, she observes, is thwarting the purpose of social justice awareness, robbing us of compassion and “replacing it with moral superiority”.

“With wokeness we’re speaking from a place of emotion,” she notes. This means running the risk of reducing complex issues, being reactionary rather than responsive. This “doesn’t leave much room for nuance, which is important in order to understand the interconnectedness of the issues.”

Akanbi also questions the ‘cancel culture’ – originally boycotting a celebrity for their views, this also translates to unfriending someone for their opinions, ejecting them from social media and WhatsApp groups, ignoring or turning your back on them in person.

The issue, she holds, is “complex because humans are complex”. Cancelling negates “how easy it is for us to become the people we don’t like”.

The digital divide refers to the gulf between those with access to the internet and social media and those who are without it. But there’s a growing divide even between those with this access – right and left, progressive and conservative, us and them. The increasing political and social polarisation is enabled by the ability to take public positions.

Grandstanding on virtual soapboxes makes it harder to step off, step back, and hear and understand other points of view. It undermines compassion.

Grandstanding on virtual soapboxes makes it harder to step off, step back, and hear and understand other points of view. It undermines compassion.

The advent of 24/7 television had already begun enabling such polarisation. Today, anchors on talk shows encourage panellists to be aggressive and take positions they know other guests will react to. Everyone obliges. The producers allow these shouting matches that bring in the ratings. They also perpetuate further divisions that such shows thrive.

So the noise continues. Social media hornets zoom in on individuals, so much easier to berate than ideas or systems.

These patterns are already visible in the run-up to this year’s Aurat March, threatening to again overshadow this inspiring, empowering event and the hard work and process behind it. Going by the knee-jerk reactions to the last couple of years and the current vicious back-and-forth already visible on TV and social media, we are in for more of the same.

The writer is a journalist, editor, and filmmaker. She blogs at Journeys to Democracy (www.beenasarwar.com). She tweets at @beenasarwar

Aurat March 2020: Polarity of narratives