Pakistan is an orthodox country and you can’t go there dressed like this, my editor, a woman herself, told me as I stood in her cabin wearing a sober blue jeans and gray t-shirt. My passport was stamped with a ‘cricket-visa’ for the first-ever bilateral series between India and Pakistan in fifteen years. I wanted to argue a bit maybe. But I chose to keep quiet and nodded nonchalantly. I landed in Karachi wearing the same jeans and t-shirt. It was 2004 and the Indian media contingent had fewer women journalists covering the series as to what it would have been now. We were all mentally prepared for any raised eyebrows and had suitcases full of salwar-kameez sets and big dupattas. That’s what we mostly wore unless we happened to be in posh areas of the big cities, naturally assuming that people in upscale localities might be less bothered.
Moral policing of women and their ways has taken many forms and mediums. These days it has led to something we also know as cyber bullying.
Now, sports reporting means tight deadlines and a very busy schedule for the crew. In order to meet our deadlines, we needed to follow strict discipline in terms of coverage. On one such crucial day of the match, I was busy putting my press conference footage together so that it makes it to the broadcast in time. It was the time before Asr (the third Islamic prayer of the day, last before sunset) prayers and I heard the Azaan (Islamic call to prayer) from one of the loudspeakers around Peshawar’s Arbab Niyaz Cricket Stadium.
I covered my head with the dupatta, as we were taught to do in most Muslim homes showing respect to the call for prayer. I continued working and the Azaan ended. The stadium was likely surrounded with a number of mosques and had back to back Azaan in a span of ten minutes. I covered my head every time I heard it, but in the rush didn’t realise when my headscarf slipped off my head. A local boy who must have been 8 or 9 years old came rushing towards me and said “Sar dhak le bibi warna yahan Zalzala aa jaaega” (Cover your head, lady or there’ll be an earthquake). I did cover my head, again, but I could never forget the incident. It left me with many questions. What stories did the child hear in the family about the cause of earthquakes? Was he seeing women held responsible for natural calamities? What kind of a man will this green-eyed boy become when he grows up?
Judging and correcting women for how they should live and think becomes a man’s right even before he’s grown into one. And it isn’t about one particular religion or culture. We witness it in the economically well-to-do regions of India like Haryana, Rajasthan, Punjab and even down South. What we don’t realize is that a woman ‘seeming to be scandalous,’ could be in the perception of the person seeing her.
Moral policing of women and their ways has taken many forms and mediums. These days it has led to something we also know as cyberbullying. According to one definition, it is “the use of electronic communication to bully a person, typically by sending messages of an intimidating or threatening nature.”
An International human rights professional and gender expert who grew up in Uzbekistan explains this kind of policing as one of the ‘tools’ of reasserting power roles in society. “It is not particular to a specific religion, and if it was not for these tools, there would be other mechanisms of asserting patriarchal dominance in some societies”, says the UN professional who’s lived and dealt with these issues in countries of Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and even in the first world countries like the USA.
She further says, “Men and women, boys and girls continue to perpetrate such behavior consciously, fully realizing the benefits of power positions in their societies, being comfortable with well-established and well-defined roles and expectations in their social order. Others could be doing this unconsciously due to lack of exposure.”
When we bully women online, we’re giving them a message that men are not ready to hear their voices, and that they are not free to express themselves.
A young Zaira Wasim who used to be Kashmir’s youth icon and an idol to so many local girls sometime back, decides to deactivate her social media accounts due to such attacks. A lady doctor in Kashmir who was conducting a Facebook Live session on prevention from coronavirus was lectured to cover her head while doing so. Turkish television series Ertugrul actor Esra Bilgiçbeing got trolled for her choice of clothes in her Instagram photos. Simply because her audience isn’t used to seeing her like that. They have an idealistic image of her, and they assume she should dress up like the character Halima Sultan in real life. What these audiences probably forgot is that just like playing Superman doesn’t mean you’re really one in real life, playing an Islamic warrior princess is part of her profession.
It happens worldwide and the list is long. Seven-year-old Avengers: Endgame star Lexi Rabe has to beg “Please don’t bully me” in a video message after her family claims she’s been bullied online by an adult. While 20-year-old Bollywood actor Ananya Pandey is so fed up with online hate that she starts a campaign called ‘So Positive’ to deal with this daily battle.
One-third of young people polled by the United Nations in 2019 confirmed that they have experienced online bullying. Statistics given by the European Institute of Gender Equality also reveal that after experiencing online abuse or policing 51 percent of women hesitate to engage in social media debates. Clearly, when we bully women online, we’re giving them a message that men are not ready to hear their voices, and that they are not free to express themselves.
Just as it has taken ages for this power structure to get established within our societies and culture, it will take time for it to get dismantled. Breaking this down will also happen very consciously, one firm step at a time. We need to remember that digital spaces can prove to be extremely empowering in terms of forming and expressing opinions, debate and bringing change. The obstruction of this process will be detrimental. Let’s remember that we’re doing this to make the world a better place for our own children. For that, we have to work together as men and women, not be pitted against each other. While women are asserting themselves, men also have to become models of behaviour change.
Afshan Anjum is a senior sports journalist. The views expressed are the author’s own.