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Media misogyny

Ayesha Haroon

A little more than four weeks ago, Rush Limbaugh, host of a right-wing radio talk show in the US, called a female university student “a slut”. In the weeks that followed Limbaugh’s show lost almost one hundred advertisers.

With more than 14,000 radio stations and, an estimated, 80 per cent of the population tuning in at least once a day, radio is big in the US. And The Rush Limbaugh Show has the biggest listenership in America – 11 million plus. Mr Limbaugh himself claims to have 20 million people listening to him. Even accounting for exaggeration, it’s a huge listenership.

Limbaugh wears his political and personal far-right ideology on his sleeves. For years, he has openly and loudly used his platform for supporting his favourite political candidates, social causes, and worldview. He uses racial slurs against President Obama, makes derogatory remarks about immigrants, mocks Muslims, and equates African Americans with robbers and thieves. For the last 20-plus years he has had an unfettered reign.

On February 23, 2012, a law student, Sandra Fluke, testified before the US House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee regarding the impact of new healthcare regulations. She argued that contraception medicines are also prescribed to treat a variety of women’s health issues and hence should be covered by health insurance. Rush Limbaugh ignored the argument and decided to attack her in several shows, calling her a “slut” and a “prostitute”.

Widespread condemnation, by the public and the media, of Limbaugh’s misogynistic attacks led to a rapid exit by his advertisers.

There is definitely a reason why calling a female student “slut” became problematised in this way. Mexicans and Muslims and African Americans, including President Obama, have been called all sorts of names by him – but there he had been pushing the envelope on a political position held by some. In this case, he crossed a line by trying to invoke a misogynistic view of women.

Limbaugh has a huge amount of money, largest US radio talk show listenership, political contacts, and the channel he works for is owned by Mitt Romney, who is hoping to run against Obama in the next elections. But none of the above could keep the advertisers from abandoning him.

In the 21st century, his twisted view of women, at least, has been rejected by all the sides of the political divide in the US.

It is the same 21st century in Pakistan, but we are still trying to prove that throwing acid on a human being is a heinous crime and there can be no justification for it.

An anchor and columnist, Javed Chaudhry, recently wrote an article on the issue of acid-throwing. After using a couple of adjectives to describe the odious nature of the crime, he let a perpetrator of this brutality make his case for acid-throwing as a reaction to provocation and as a crime of passion.

It is a very clever piece of writing, in which the columnist narrates an acid-thrower’s version of a crime. The columnist does not tell the reader who is the criminal and who is the unfortunate victim. Is it a fictionalised version of many incidents, a real event, or a piece of pure fiction? Did the writer actually meet a criminal who was so vengeful that he inflicted terrible injuries on his ex-wife and yet wanted to send a message to the public that the victim is also a criminal? That by being stubborn the victim was compelling the assailant to kill her? One hopes the criminal was reported to the police after this horrifying confession.

Since the article is published in the Opinion-Editorial pages of a newspaper, the writer is taking a position on the issue of acid throwing. He calls the acid-thrower a “beast”, he says he felt like strangling the acid-thrower as he narrated his story, and would have gotten up and left if he did not have ‘bardasht’ (tolerance?).

He heard the criminal’s story but why did he write about it? If the attempt was to explore the assailant’s mental and psychological issues, was this the right forum and the right way? Why was it one-sided? Why was the victim’s version not reported? What if the criminal was talking a load of lies? The writer says he kept quiet when the acid-thrower finished his story and went away. The implication is that while the act of acid throwing is heinous there is merit in the assailant’s reasons for committing the crime.

The writer quotes the assailant as saying that, by being stubborn, even innocent women, who are not as ‘bad’ as his wife, must have compelled men like him to throw acid on their faces – even these innocent women must have made some mistake. What a terribly irresponsible comment to quote in public space. Why did the editors not scratch it?

The writer’s implicit suggestion that killing would have been better for the victim instead of acid being thrown on her is grossly wrong on so many levels. There can be no choice between the two – both are unacceptable. Again, why was this sentence allowed to be published in the newspaper?

It is unfortunate that a crime as obvious as acid-throwing can be picked up to create sympathy for the criminal. It is unfortunate that we have to fight cultural battles that we thought were fought and won. Our culture is saturated with misogyny and we have to be vocal about our rejection of stereotypes, exploitation, and violence.

The writer is a former editor of The News Lahore.

The News