Women in South Asia: United By Harassment

Online smut campaigns against dissenting women are becoming more common in both India and Pakistan.

ByAmmara Ahmad
Women in South Asia: United By Harassment

If you talk to people from Right-wing parties in Pakistan about Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s first female Prime Minister, chances are they’ll have plenty of stories to tell. Most of these stories will be unflattering — centering on her ‘sex life’ from her time at Oxford or on the ‘half-a-dozen men she’s had affairs with’. All Bhutto had done to attract this sort of slander was to challenge Islamist military dictator Zia ul-Haq. And as it is with such smear campaigns, there’s little proof or even a loose link to support the claims.

Indeed women in Pakistan are vulnerable to similar kind of threats and slandering as Gurmehar Kaur witnessed recently in India.

Take the case of Pakistani human rights lawyer Asma Jahangir, who has been accused of having ties with deceased Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray. The evidence? A photo of Jahangir from 2008 that shows her sitting next to Thackeray; that too wearing an orange salwaar-kameez. For those bent on maligning her, it did not matter that Jehangir had met Thackeray as United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion.

This vilification and coercion of facts have become easier with social media. Pages on Facebook and hundreds of social media accounts can now erupt to attack a woman who has taken an ideological stance of her choice. The strange thing is that it quickly becomes an acceptable truth. Hina Rabbani Khar, former Foreign Minister of Pakistan, was targeted after Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) had a fallout with Pakistan’s Army over the Kerry-Luger Bill, which sought to put military aid under civilian supervision. Khar was made the target of vicious online campaigns that fallaciously stated that she was romancing PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari. The story is so bizarre that neither Bilawal nor Khar will ever challenge it openly. Therefore, it stays online. And on some or the other random website, there will always be photos of two Indian actors with the caption “Bilawal kissing Hina Khar”.

All major political parties in Pakistan have social media wings. Recently, security agencies in Pakistan have also acquired a hefty social media presence. What this means is hundreds of accounts working towards trending hashtags and attacking anyone critical of their ideals, leaders or personnel. The Army is particularly sensitive about Balochistan or the Chief of Army Staff. Journalists who challenge information about Balochistan or leak news about the Army’s secret operations (like Cyril Almeida did last year) face a series of smut campaigns and threats.

Marvi Sirmed, a human rights activist based in Islamabad, is a loud proponent of minority rights and challenges the two-nation theory. She is also against Pakistan depicting India as the enemy and Saudi Arabia as a friend. Sirmed’s attire — a saree and a bindi — have been the subject of repeated attacks against her. She is a staunch critic of Imran Khan and therefore often at the receiving end of his political party’s trolls. Just before the 2013 elections, pictures of Sirmed’s face were Photoshopped on the body of a barely-dressed model and circulated.

Women are more vulnerable to such attacks, and this is why in Pakistan, female political figures, like the sitting PM Nawaz Sharif’s daughter, top women ministers and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s daughters keep a strategic distance from the public.

Apart from the fact that such slanderous campaigns can be a cause of immense distress, they also take away from the original issue at hand.

Consider the case of Kaur, who has been at the receiving end of online conspiracies and slander from the Right wing. What the trolling and smear campaigns ultimately achieved was a shift in focus from the violence at Ramjas College to Kaur’s nine-month old video, her motivations and her background. The issue of vandalism on campus took a backseat; instead Kaur’s patriotism and even fidelity to her father’s legacy took centrestage. Kaur’s support for peace with Pakistan was presented as an attempt to demoralise the Indian soldier — a stand Bharatiya Janata Party has often taken to quell even minor variations from its stance on Pakistan.

However, it is not hard to see why Kaur’s support for peace with Pakistan irked so many BJP supporters. Being someone who has lost a parent in Kargil makes her a first-hand sufferer of war and conflict, lending her more authority on the topic as well as more plausibility. Kaur is educated, understands social media’s strength and above all, she remained steadfast on her stance of wanting peace between the two nations even as she dealt with intense media scrutiny. This is similar to her counterparts in Pakistan, like Sirmed and Jahangir.

Hopefully, women stalwarts of BJP, like Sushma Swaraj, Smriti Irani, Meneka Gandhi and Shazia Ilmi, will take a stance against manufactured hate campaigns against women. And they will do it publicly, so that everyone who thinks they’re furthering BJP’s cause, gets the message. Hopefully, laws will also be enacted and enforced to prevent women from being threatened with sexual violence by online trolls.

Kaur isn’t alone when it comes to peace activism. American war veterans from Vietnam, Afghanistan and especially Iraq have led movements for peace, particularly before the second invasion of war. Veterans and their families have shared their suffering and first-hand experiences to negate pro-war jingoism. However, these people are not dubbed as anti-America overnight.

As a Pakistani, I stand in support of Kaur’s brave and mature stance, and her decision to not fall for hollow nationalism. It is clear that the loss and absence of her father have taught her the price of armed conflicts. She isn’t asking India to give up defending itself, but to refrain from rushing in. She makes an appeal to both nations to solve the problem:

“Enough state-sponsored terrorism. Enough state-sponsored spies. Enough state-sponsored hatred. Enough people have died on both sides of the border. Enough is enough.”

Above all, Kaur’s voice is important because as women, we pay the bigger price for war and conflict, not just owing to the sexual violence, but also because of loss of family and infrastructure.

More women like Kaur, who understands that women are stakeholders in conflict resolution and peace processes just like men are, should have their voices heard.

I hope some Pakistani Army officer’s daughter will also gather the courage to say what Kaur did and develop a counter-narrative of peace in these nations obsessed with overpowering each other.

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