Pakistan’s Mad Men And Their Stubborn Sexism

Pakistan’s Mad Men And Their Stubborn Sexism
The American period drama series, Mad Men, that ran for seven blockbuster seasons over eight years from 2007-15, depicted the changing norms and social mores in the post-war US of 1960s.

Per its pilot episode, the advertising executives coined the slang term Mad Men. ‘Mad’ being short for ‘Madison’ in Madison Avenue, Manhattan's prestigious hub of the advertising industry.

Although it received critical acclaim and won several Emmys, it still managed to unsettle many on account of its portrayal of sexist, misogynist, and racist overtones of the widespread social discourse. These flustered viewers, one reckons, represented a wide group that was too ashamed to see the glaring truth staring right into their faces. A good omen, one would say.

Back home in Pakistan it is a different world, where most men unapologetically demonstrate on almost a daily basis the distinguishing traits of the ‘Mad Men’ of 1960s Madison Avenue – sexism, misogyny, chauvinism, and their dogged penchant to objectify women.

Unfortunately, and unforgivably, this is done mostly by men (sometimes women too) in politics and media while sitting on our television screens as patronising (yet clueless) talking heads.

In the joint session of parliament on July 25, 2023, Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Defence, Khawaja Asif, told women from across the aisle that, “These depraved women shouldn’t lecture us on chastity”. The speaker subsequently expunged his words from the proceedings, which is why the media had to stop reporting them, which allowed him to shamelessly refuse to apologise the next day and insist that women who talk of gender equality must learn to tolerate the insults.

The fact that Asif represents Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N), a political party that till recently claimed to be the harbinger of democracy and flagbearer of citizens’ rights, is rather disconcerting.

READ MORE: Fight Club

Far more confounding is that his party, known to be conservative, got the attention of progressive sections of civil society when it appointed a woman as senior vice president of the party and several other women to government and party’s key positions.

The otherwise vocal women leaders of PML-N made themselves conspicuous by silently cowering to the silent corners in a political space already restricted for women.

Quite disturbingly, none of these women said a word to condemn or even distance themselves from this ill-mouthed minister of theirs. Only one woman-minister from another coalition partner tweeted to clarify why she was seen smiling when Asif was making those highly offensive remarks. She claimed not being attentive and doing something else while her fellow women were being attacked and humiliated. Hardly a saving grace.

The otherwise vocal women leaders of PML-N made themselves conspicuous by silently cowering to the silent corners in a political space already restricted for women.

We have been celebrating these women, especially those in conservative political parties, like PML-N, for making strides in a difficult and complex political reality. But we cannot be complacent about their now frequent compromises on our rights and gender equality. They must either stand up or settle with being history or ‘his-story’.

Last week wasn’t something new. It not the first time Asif indulged in gendered hate speech. He is fond of hurling gendered jibes at women and then hiding behind the hackneyed ‘it was a joke’ or far more worrying ‘if you want equality, you have to tolerate these insults’ argument.

Asif must know that women don’t have to tolerate anything to qualify for gender equality. His idea is based on the false assumption that women are already equal to men. Even a person as bigoted, as ignorant, and as narrow-minded as him should be able to see it all around. Women face discrimination and prejudice in all areas of life. So, no, women don’t have to suffer the likes of him and his ignorant tirades in the form of gendered hate speech.

READ MORE: Reframing the Population Growth Debate: Women’s Health and Autonomy

Secondly, equality of all sexes and all communities with all religious, ethnic, sectarian, and sexual identities is enshrined in our constitution. The same constitution he claims to uphold and respect.

No, women don’t have to suffer the likes of him and his ignorant tirades in the form of gendered hate speech

Unfortunately, Khawaja Asif is not the only sexist in our politics. Every political party seems to have them in abundant, unending supply. Former PM Imran Khan has made so many misogynistic, sexist statements that one has lost count. His party has the largest number of sexist men and enabling women. Who could forget Khan’s famous comment while talking about why rapes were happening, "If a woman is wearing very few clothes, it will have an impact on the men, unless they are robots, common sense." How this mindset emboldens, rather validates, sexual violence against women cannot be overemphasised.

Not very long ago, PTI’s stalwart Asad Umar was calling a fellow politician ‘ner ka bachcha’ (son of the male?) when he meant to call them courageous. Later, when PTI’s Fawad Chaudhry literally ran to escape arrest, his opponents and media critics endlessly advised him to behave like a ‘mard’, insouciantly implying that showing a lack of steadfastness was a trait of those who are not men, i.e. women and transgender.

A few years ago, Asif called a woman member of PTI a ‘tractor trolley’ and another a ‘newly acquired dumper’. When a woman member of PTI asked him to keep a distance from her, Abid Sher Ali, another sexist-to-the-core member of PML-N, said, “But there is nothing to touch anyways.” PPP’s senior leader Khursheed Shah while speaking on the floor of the National Assembly, said, “If women don’t talk, they will fall ill”.

READ MORE: Mother Of Misogyny In Pakistani Political Discourse

Prior to the 2018 elections, PML-N supreme leader Mian Nawaz Sharif told his women supporters, "Thankfully, you are not like the women who attend PTI rallies." Rana Sanullah, federal minister from PML-N echoed Sharif’s words a couple of years ago while criticising the women attendants of a PTI protest. He said, “The dance moves of these women show which kind of families they belong to.”

Apart from Musharraf’s notorious “they get themselves raped for Canadian visas”, the man was a master of latent and overt sexism. He, alongside his minister Sheikh Rasheed, now a supporter of PTI’s Imran Khan, habitually poked fun at Bilawal Bhutto Zardari for not being ‘man enough’, ‘sloganeering like a woman’, and frequently telling him to ‘act like a man’.

Last but not least, competing for the top slot of repulsive horrendousness, is that unforgiveable chuckle by PPP’s Nabil Gabol, “when rape is inevitable, you should sit back and enjoy”.

I haven’t even touched on the sexism of Pakistani male journalists and TV anchors. A few weeks ago, when a woman panellist interrupted a politician on using a sexist phrase, the anchor (an arch male) retorted, ‘Nothing bars us from using it when we can’t find an alternative phrase’. Discussion closed!

This is not an exhaustive list of casual sexism of Pakistani politicians. Far from it. But it should be enough to demonstrate how they habitually say awful things and get away with them. Result? It reinforces gender stereotypes about women, their acceptable role in society and family, validates what should be expected of them, objectifies them, and creates a hostile environment for them in society generally and in politics, media particularly. It also sends the message to young adults that sexism is acceptable, and women should only be acceptable if they behave in a way dictated by these stereotypes.

Just imagine how their nonchalant sexist speeches normalises sexism in our society.

The ’Mad Men’ of Pakistan must behave themselves if we want a better society, a better Pakistan for all of us.