VIEW POINT: Fighting gender bias and bigotry

For quite some time Defence Minister Khawaja Asif, doubling as Minister for Water and Power, has been attracting public attention more for hurling squeaky taunts at PTI leaders inside the National Assembly than performance in either of his ministries.

Last week while being heckled by the opposition members during budget debate he singled out a woman MNA of the PTI, Dr Shireen Mazari, to make rude remarks about her appearance that the Speaker had to expunge amidst opposition benches’ strong protest.

Legislators are expected to avoid using language that is deemed below the dignity of the house.

There is even a phrase ‘unparliamentary language’ for it. But the minister has repeatedly been demonstrating parliamentary traditions and rules are of least concern to him.

Any decent person in his place would have apologised for offensive words uttered in the heat of the moment. Not him.

On being compelled to say sorry he wrote a letter to the Speaker going into a long spiel about how his “family was blessed by Allah Almighty and the people of the constituency with the membership of this august house for over five decades” offering an apology to the “chair and the august house” but stopping short of saying sorry to the person concerned.

Meanwhile the issue turned into a gender debate. At least two senior members of the PTI publically expressed a desire to give a thrashing to Khawaja for his obnoxious comments about a woman legislator the emphasis being on the member’s gender.

That in a way smacks of belief that men being physically stronger should be protective of women.

The matter was also taken up by the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus (WPC), a forum for parliamentarians to raise issue affecting women in the country, though the opposition and ruling party’s members had a different take on the apology the minister was compelled to tender.

To that later. First of all is the question did the minister make sexist remarks? The answer is no, they could equally apply to a man.

What he said was certainly in bad taste which would have offended anyone in her place but there is nothing sexist about it.

Yet Mazari remained insistent on casting it as a women’s issue. Rejecting Khwaja’s apology, which was not a proper apology, she pointed out that she was not the only one heckling, “a lot of people were doing that.

He only passed such remarks against a woman.” There could be any number of reasons why he picked on her maybe she was the loudest of all, or because she is a prominent member of the opposition party giving tough time to the government.

She could have fought back on gender neutral terms.

The reaction of the legislator and others on her side to frame it as a gender issue does not square with the idea of equality.

It amounts to perpetuation of the weaker sex image. Surely Mazari, a self-confessed anarchist, does not include herself in that category.

Her public record shows she is quite capable of both defending herself and offending others.

Seeking special treatment or concessions on gender basis may have something to do with privileged classes’ sense of entitlements, but it comes across as saying ‘we need protection because we are the weaker sex.’

How women in leadership positions behave in public has implications for society’s attitude towards gender issues.

An important example came up around the same time women legislators were using gender to express outrage over unparliamentarily behaviour of a minister from the opposite sex.

By now we are all familiar with the story how during a TV talk show discussion on violence against women a JUI-F Senator, Hafiz Hamdullah, kept quiet when a male discussant made some disparaging remarks about Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) Chairman Mualana Mohammad Khan Sherani for his indifference to crimes against women.

Yet he did not react until a woman participant, Marvi Sirmad, endorsed those remarks before trying to say something on her own.

That is when he decided to take out his anger using words (that as per her interpretation included a threat of rape) against her that had to be censored by bleeping.

Hafiz even tried to physically assault her. That was as serious a case of gender prejudice as can be.

Yet to her credit the person in question fought back on equal footing, also lodging a complaint with the police against the bigoted senator.

There has been a genuine concern that neither the religious parties leaders nor the CII take any notice when women are subjected to such horrific violence as acid throwing, stove burnings, killing in the name of family honour for contracting marriage of choice, and even gang rapes ordered by village councils.

But they all have a thing about keeping women under control. The CII just recently recommended ‘light beating’ of women, of course, by men. No wonder Hafiz Hamadullah acted the way he did.

He belongs to the same party as Sherani, who got to be chairman of CII as a political appointee rather than as an eminent religious scholar. Considering the political background the JUI-F senator’s bad behaviour towards the female rights activist seems to have been driven by his misogyny as well as the need to defend religious parties’ turf.

Making Maulana Sherani above reproach was important for his party. In reality there is nothing sacrosanct about the CII (whose recommendations Parliament can ignore) those sitting on it, or what they have to say on whatever issue they may choose to pontificate on.

In fact, Maulana Sherani has been offering unsolicited opinion on various issues that could create further chaos and divisions in society and alienate religious minorities, hence there is a growing demand for abolishing the CII altogether.

Returning to the issue at hand, it is good to note that political leaders have taken strong notice of JUI-F senator’s behaviour, promising to take it up in the next session of both houses of Parliament.

He must be made to apologise to the woman against whom he used foul language and nearly attacked her. How this issue ends is important for changing attitudes towards women in this society. -Business Recorder