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Atif Aslam, Karachi Eat, the woman in the back row and the lies we tell ourselves

We say we stand for 'empowerment' but we do so only when the terms of that empowerment are dictated by men.
Updated Jan 24, 2017 01:55pm

What if I told you I knew a woman who'd been harassed but who'd remained unsaved by Atif Aslam at the concert she attended in Karachi this Saturday?

What if I told you this woman, who was groped by a few men, was standing a fair few rows away from Atif at the time when she was harassed? What if I told you that she tried to get Atif's attention so he could save her just as he'd saved the woman in the row in front of her, but he didn't see her, or maybe he chose not to see her?

What happened to this woman who was less visible to those in power (in this case, Atif Aslam and the concert's management) and therefore less likely to be rescued from harassment?

What happened to the woman in the back row?

***

This weekend cult food festival Karachi Eat was widely criticised for using a policy for crowd control largely familiar to Pakistanis: the 'family-only' policy.

At Karachi Eat, this policy meant that single men or all-male groups of friends or family weren't allowed to enter the festival's premises. Only women could buy tickets for their parties and any men wishing to enter had to be accompanied by women.

Karachi Eat, now in its third year, has not been without controversy. Critics of the festival have called it out for being, at Rs250 per entry ticket, elitist. People have alleged the festival destroys Frere Hall's manicured grounds. These are fairly valid concerns and have long been the subject of healthy debate.

What's new is how the festival's 'families only' policy is being called out for being 'sexist' and discriminatory towards men.

Across social media criticism of the festival's family only policy was widespread. One man said: "Karachi Eat's sexist policy against men is just as wrong as the discrimination faced by females in our society." Another tried a 'logical' approach, saying: "Discriminate against Women & they lose their cool. Discriminate against men & its completely justified because they harass women. RIP Logic."

It wasn't only men who protested this family-only policy, a fair number of women found fault with it as well.

What's really at stake in this conversation about policies at Karachi Eat or Atif Aslam's intervention is patriarchy's power. The picture that emerges is that we only stand for women's empowerment when the terms of that empowerment are dictated and sanctioned by the ad-hoc, individual acts and largess of men.

Let's leave aside for a minute the absurdity of claiming that any current policy that singles out men is equivalent to the sexism women face. I've spoken about this in previous essays, so over here I'll just say: for women, discrimination is more than one policy at a festival — it's the air we breathe and the bread we eat. It's our reality, one that has for centuries now been justified by religion, law and social norms, making it impossible for women to expect a truly level playing field no matter what room they walk into, no matter which gender they interact with.

Men have their own valid grievances; that deeply entrenched biases discriminate against them based on their gender isn't one.

I'd welcome this dialogue if it meant we were genuinely invested in debating gender politics.

Unfortunately, this isn't the case.

What's really at stake in this conversation about policies at Karachi Eat or Atif Aslam's intervention is patriarchy's power. The picture that emerges is that we only stand for women's empowerment when the terms of that empowerment are dictated and sanctioned by the ad-hoc, individual acts and largess of men.

***

Which brings me back to our woman in the back row.

Pakistan can look back on a long sad history of institutional sexism. It's not enough to say legislation to protect women barely existed until very recently — it's worse than that. Legislation like the Hudood Ordinance actively disempowered women, sanctioning the creation of a culture where women were 'fair game' and their safe passage through the world depended on their proximity to a male guardian or patron.

In this culture where the law viewed women as being inherently unequal, a woman's protection became informal, largely dependent on the strength of her familial, class or tribal affiliations.

Women with these affiliations are privileged — they're in 'front row,' so to speak. In the context of this weekend's concert, they're the ones closest to Atif Aslam. They're largely shielded from abuse in the public sphere. In pop culture, women in the 'front row' include women like Momina Mustehsan, Meesha Shafi, Mahira Khan.

People in Pakistan view gender equality as a zero-sum game where universal protection for women enshrined in the law decreases the scope of unchecked male power, and that, to them, is a problem.

Women who don't have access to these networks, women who are disenfranchised and without the cover of male protection have little legal recourse and are prime targets for abuse. These women are in 'the back row,' far away from well, Atif Aslam. Their distance from male power and male protection decreases their visibility to us and makes them less likely to receive aid. In pop culture women in the 'back row' include women like Qandeel Baloch, Meera, Ayyan.

For me, it goes without saying that informal protection afforded to women must be replaced by universal law which, at least in theory, applies to all citizens equally irregardless of affiliations and proximity to power. If this doesn't happen, women in 'the back row' will continue to suffer and what's worse, their voices will remain unheard.

For others, the above is less obvious.

We've made strides to protect women through legislation in the past few years, but most of these strides have been opposed by the religious right and even self-professed 'secular' conservatives.

Those who oppose these laws cite everything from 'reverse sexism' to 'unIslamic values' to bolster their case. But whichever way you look at it, through a secular or a religious lens, the conclusion is the same: people in Pakistan view gender equality as a zero-sum game where universal protection for women enshrined in the law decreases the scope of unchecked male power, and that, to them, is a problem.

***

I'm not suggesting that Karachi Eat's 'family only' policy is equivalent to, let's say, the Women's Protection Bill — I concede that it's an imperfect solution that reflects back at us the flawed society that necessitated it.

However, I can argue that the policies are similar in that they release women from the need to rely on informal ties for safety — from the need to be escorted, protected and shepherded by men. A policy like this secures women 'in the back row' from harassment. These otherwise at-risk demographics like single women, groups of women alone, divorced women and others are able to participate in civic culture and find a safe space within which to roam.

Ironically, the need for policies like this exists because systemic sexism has made women unequal. As a single woman I know that if I'm harassed, there's precious little I can do. The police won't help me or hold my harasser accountable. In fact the authorities might add to my abuse. I can only rely on these small pockets of safe space found at places like Karachi Eat to approximate the better, more secure world that'd exist if legislation and social norms had my back.

Unfortunately, those who have internalised sexism and still cling to patriarchal power as a means of validation feel threatened when women in the 'back row' gain this power. To them, it's an upset of the status quo that afforded men (and the women they selectively empower) an almost god-like position in society.

If you, as a man or a woman, felt Karachi Eat's policy was unfair, you might want to do some soul searching.

Most likely, you're not unsettled by 'discrimination' or 'sexism' — you're unsettled by the radical proposition that true empowerment means releasing ALL women from any dependence on men.

***

Which brings me back to Atif Aslam.

To me, Atif's act of intervention to "rescue" a woman from harassment (his words, not mine), while certainly well-intended and necessary at the time, is further proof of how deeply we've internalised sexism.

Let's admit it: we liked when Atif rescued that woman. The next day headlines across Pakistan hailed him a hero. "Atif Aslam stops singing, protects honor of female fan!" screamed one website. "Pakistani singer Atif Aslam stops concert mid-way to rescue girl!" said another.

This praise falls in line with our current patriarchal narrative that recognises male guardianship as the best and the only 'correct' means to ensure protection for women.

As per our current narrative, Atif is performing his role exactly as he should: he's protecting a woman from harassment by exercising all the privilege he holds — as a man, as a celebrity and so on.

As per our current narrative, we don't ask any questions about the woman in the back row, the women who he didn't see or chose not to see. For us, she doesn't exist at all, and she will remain nonexistent until men in power, like Atif Aslam at the concert, choose to validate her presence.

Also non-existent are the male harassers who tormented these women in the first place. We don't know their names, haven't seen their faces at all.

In this scenario, which is analogous to how gender functions in our society, empowerment (or a 'rescue') is selectively distributed through education, marriage and employment. Our respect and praise is in turn selective: it accrues only to the man making this empowerment possible i.e. Atif Aslam. Absent here is any respect for the courage it took a woman to attend a concert without 'family only' policies in place. In fact, she's criticised for daring to attend the concert at all.

What's interesting to unpack is why Atif Aslam's effort to protect a woman was widely praised when Karachi Eat's policies were widely scoffed at.

We praised Atif Aslam's intervention because it validated our sexist belief that only a male hand can and should 'manage' women. We disliked Karachi Eat's intervention because it protects women without needing a man to sign off on how deserving she is of that protection.

So here's the cold truth:

We liked Atif Aslam's intervention because in that instance the protection of women is informal, is executed on a case by case basis dependent on which woman is more deserving, and also because the ultimate decision maker is a powerful man.

We preferred Atif Aslam's intervention to Karachi Eat's intervention because we have internalised the sexist, patriarchal belief that a woman's protection is only good or valid when it is sanctioned by the ad-hoc decisions of individual men, ensuring that these men continue to wield power over women, dictating where they roam, how they dress and who they interact with.

We praised Atif Aslam's intervention because it validated our sexist belief that only a male hand can and should 'manage' women.

We disliked Karachi Eat's intervention because it protects women without needing a man to sign off on how deserving she is of that protection.

We disliked Karachi Eat's intervention because we want power over women's activities to only be in the hands of either their male guardians/saviours or the men who may or may not choose to molest them based on how women act or dress.

Did Karachi Eat's policies disempower men? Yes, but only in one way: they robbed men of the unchecked power to harass women or protect women based on their whims and fancies.

It is this displacement of ugly, sexist male power that we rued when we criticised Karachi Eat.

This is an ugly truth, but all of us, men and women alike, need to swallow it.

When we stand against the codification of laws protecting women and other structurally disadvantaged members of society, remember this: we stand for inequality. We stand for subjugation.

We need to check ourselves. Question our motives. Be unrelenting critics of our own prejudices.

Some have begun doing this, like the young man who, after witnessing harassment at Atif Aslam's concert, concluded that universal policies like Karachi Eat's 'family only' rule were necessary.

But others have a long way to go.

Still, it's not too late to stop kidding ourselves.