Asma, Malala and misogyny

I have often wondered why these lights of hope and humanity are so maligned and resented by, I fear, a majority of Pakistanis

Upon hearing of Asma Jehangir passing away, I had the same feeling, when more than a decade ago, a friend asked as we walked along: did you hear? Edward Said died. I felt strength leaving my legs, and I had to sit down. As long as intellects like Said and activists like Asma are around, in the words of my friend Usman Qazi, more timid foot soldiers like your scribe, are content for them to lead, and us to follow. But now Asma is no more. In between a deep sense of loss is also, contemptuous rage that I feel towards her detractors and assorted trolls. It reminds me of another shining star in the darkness of Pakistan’s despair, Malala Yousafzai. I have often wondered why these lights of hope and humanity are so maligned and resented by, I fear, a majority of Pakistanis.

According to the Most Reputable Country Report of 2016, Pakistan stood at 68 out of the 70 countries covered in the survey. Even yesterday, as I gave up my seat for an elderly Italian lady on the London underground, she asked me where I was from. I said, Pakistan. She fell silent, and then piped up, ‘but you are so nice!’. As if Pakistanis are supposed to be anything but. And yet, the two Pakistanis almost universally admired across the world, Asma Jehangir and Malala Yousafzai are subjected to vicious attacks by, mostly Pakistanis. I know that the Pakistani Right, including the whiskey drinking one, is not exactly known for its compassion or even good sense. But to make a public enemy of a young woman like Malala, advocating for children’s right to an education is seemingly beneath even their meanness.

The answer, may lie in the results of our recently concluded study on gender and violence in urban Pakistan. In our research we learned that many young men cruising the streets of Pakistan, quite naturally, intensely desire female company and intimacy. Yet, they either go dumbstruck when ushered into a social situation with women, or resort to displays of their aggressive masculinity, when they can’t engage in normal social discourse. Their frustration at their own social impotence in the presence of women, translates into intense anger and resentment at the perceived feminine mystique. They therefore slander and malign young women, engage in acts of cat calling and harassment, almost to make up for their own evisceration.

Pakistani masculinity is not exceptional in its toxic insecurities. It is sadly a common malaise in too many parts of world, and yes, even in Europe and North America, just read Male Fantasies by Klaus Theweleit, among others. In fact, I have often argued that the gender binary of masculine and feminine is largely informed by colonial legislative and discursive constructs. In most precolonial South Asian cultures, gender was always a spectrum—as exemplified by the acceptance of gender hybrid fashions and norms, the hijra community and so on. The colonially sanctioned gender binary of feminine and masculine have to be logical opposites. If feminine is emotional then masculine cannot be. If masculine is physical strength, then feminine cannot be. Such nonsense has infected our society at the capillary level.

Articulate strong women like Asma Jehangir and Malala Yousufzai threaten the masculinity locked in a binary opposition to the feminine in Pakistan. It is little surprise then, that they are subjected to the venom that they are. Even the liberals have to eulogize Asma Jehangir by tweeting, for example, ‘Asma was the only man in Pakistan.’ As if moral strength and capacity to fight against injustice are exclusively male attributes!

Articulate strong women like Asma Jehangir and Malala Yousafzai threaten the masculinity locked in a binary opposition to the feminine in Pakistan. It is little surprise then, that they are subjected to the venom that they are. Even the liberals have to eulogize Asma Jehangir by tweeting, for example, ‘Asma was the only man in Pakistan.’ As if moral strength and capacity to fight against injustice are exclusively male attributes!

Along with the common disease of misogyny borne of toxic masculinity is also the intense antipathy towards the West, again borne of desire. Pakistani Right despite its angry pronouncements against the West, intensely desires it. Just notice the fetishisation of Western education, the lines for visas to Western countries, the obsession with western sexuality, and consumption of Western cultural and intellectual exports. We Pakistanis want to be liked and desired by the West, as we enviously watch our neighbours and their culture being desired by the West. But we want our toxic masculinity to be desired on its own — our fantasies of a glorious past, our sense of honour locked in female sexuality, and our professions of pious religiosity — things we value so much and can’t understand why can’t the rest of the world. Asma Jehangir and Malala Yousafzai do not just threaten Pakistani masculinity. In being accepted by the West, they also feed our worst fear of the feminized self, left at the altar by the West, for the masculinised woman! The life world of the Pakistani Right is a paranoid one indeed!

The writer is a reader in Politics and Environment at the Department of Geography, King’s College, London. His research includes water resources, hazards and development geography. He also publishes and teaches on critical geographies of violence and terror

Published in Daily Times, February 22nd 2018.