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The invisible woman

Afiya Shehrbano

One of the best descriptions of a liberal can be summed up in these lines: “The problem with sitting on the fence too long is that you only end up with a behind full of splinters.” The splinters are embedding themselves deeper these days with meaningless presidential slogans of “moderation,” and backtracking on crucial issues affecting women and the minorities in this country.

This halfway, half-baked philosophy has opened the doors for the far right to sweep in and fill the vacuum that is representative of neither the left nor right, or anything in-between.

So what is the moderate method of dealing with the Frontier government and its determination to make women invisible in the public sphere altogether? The moderate policy would suggest that we let them roam the public in their portable cubicles in the way of the complete burqa — not visible and yet “free” to be a civic presence. As we’ve seen, the “moderation” solution does not work. The MMA has moved a bill proposing the removal of the practice of using women in “indecent” advertisements.

The danger of leaving an open field is that someone else will have their day in it. The MMA bill tabled in the NWFP will probably be protested by the progressive women’s movement. However, the larger question remains that this is an issue that is being revisited, something that was thought to have been shot down and put away nearly two decades ago. Under Gen. Zia-ul-Haq women had multiple discriminatory and regressive laws being passed against them and they fought back to dilute many and eliminate others, including the proposed infamous “dress code.”

Several of these battles were fought on the issue of the media and women’s representation, and women found direct methods to challenge the promotion of state-sponsored religious discrimination on national TV by physically surrounding the station and refusing to let the conservative forces out! They fought for the right of women to be represented in the media when they were systematically being purged out of any media form. The movement also sought to remove negative stereotypes of women’s images from media representation. But then it exhausted itself. Women became visible again and flourished in the media, though not without patriarchal resistance. There were real and symbolic victories, including a woman MD of PTV, and many other examples.

However, the larger feminist issue was not dealt with. Here’s where the women’s movement tends to fall short each time. The public space is made for women who enter it and then immediately lose their politics. It’s a male-defined world and suddenly women begin to “malestream.” The public discourse convinces us that we must adhere to the existing rules, which may be anti-women, anti-poor and anti-minorities. But if we want our newfound places, we must follow and perpetuate these until they come back and bite us.

For example, many women in the corporate or media worlds may be working in human resources, but have not challenged or changed the maternity leave rules, nor introduced childcare facilities, or dealt with issues of sexual harassment. Similarly, in the media world, women have occasionally challenged negative stereotypes and promoted strong role models, but by and large, women’s images remain those that are defined by the “male gaze.” Hence, the media treats women according to the ageold dichotomy of the housebound, domestic, good wife and mother or the visible, economic, productive unit in society but susceptibly sexual. Both are objects, products and part of a consumer-driven, male-defined culture.

The movement has to think out of the box in the new world order. No longer is the state or conservative forces the only adversaries to women’s progress. Globalisation has convinced us that freedom means the right to consume freely and interact freely while maximising profits and reinforcing images and behaviour antithetical to women’s progress. Pornography is a case in point. And while the MMA’s definition of indecency would probably include anything that involves a woman, perhaps the movement can convert this opportunity and propose an alternative policy that falls within the parameters of its own agenda. That agenda has to include careful analysis of the impact of advertising and its beneficiaries. As it stands, the relationship between women and advertising is a problematic one.

Like it or not, issues such as pornography have historically split feminists such that some may be silently, if warily, agreeing to the MMA bill and what they describe as the “prohibition of indecent advertising” — at least in theory. If not, then they must work out their exact position in relation to the proposed bill by the MMA. For example, the definition of indecency must be clarified, and the MMA must be challenged on why they haven’t called for removal of violence against women and children in the media as well the possibility of appointing women on the board of censorship. Who better than a representative board of women to decide what is appropriate material for male consumption, how they would like to represented, and what is offensive and what makes for wholesome positive media images?

The proposition may call for a meeting of strange bed-fellows (under the MMA bill this term would be an offense, I imagine), but the movement needs to convert every opportunity in a creative and even opportunistic manner, to fight its own battle. In this one, we need to gauge who would be the victim and beneficiary of legislation as it is currently proposed and how to rework it to women’s advantage. It would also ensure the proposed MMA bill does not become a vicious means of rendering women invisible in an already under-represented society.

Source: The News

Date:4/12/2005

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