February 26, 2020

Talking about sex with women journalists

She shut me down just as I started talking about women and their reputations in newsrooms and how I went to cover a fire at a prostitution den, a chakla. I remember once mentioning the word ‘chakla’ only to have male colleagues snicker and remind me of how it was a ‘bad’ word.

The woman who shut me down did it as I was speaking at a panel at the Second Women Journalists Convention at the Karachi Press Club last Friday. It was humiliating for me, someone for whom public speaking doesn’t come easy. She cut me off and announced that it was time to wrap up the session and have lunch.

The convention had a morning and afternoon session. I was there for the first one and my job was to provide a summation at the end.

The night before I sat down and used Lexis Nexis and JSTOR and other academic search engines to try and get a grip on any feminist/critical/cultural theory that I could possibly use. There was no work I could immediately find. The papers on women journalists in the Western media were only helpful for certain elements, but I’m always cautious when drawing on theory from the ‘West’ or ‘North’ as we should call it (according to postcolonial theorists).

Orientalism and a fetishisation of the people in the East is a minefield I could only cross if I were armed with more recent theory. It has been seven years since I wrote my thesis on Pakistani women writers at the University of Melbourne and I assume there have been advancements in theory. Given that, I believe that a good point of departure is a combination of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s ‘Can the Subaltern Speak’, Homi Bhabha’s work on nationalism, Said’s comment on Orientalism/Covering Islam. I cross these works with Jurgen Habermas’s theory of the public sphere as it applies to newspapers/the media and Michel Foucault’s theory of governmentality. I also keep at the back of my mind Louis Althusser’s theory of interpellation by way of ‘diving into the wreck’ as poet Adrienne Rich put it. And while I am not that conversant with linguistics via feminist interpretations, I am cautious when it comes to the element of language in the entire picture. And then, to top it all off I hold Camille Paglia’s ‘Sexual Personae’ as a bible to undercut any self-sympathetic weepy woman-as-victim tendencies. (For eg. there’s no point in always hysterically blaming men for the hierarchies in society. For eg. on the day of the convention, I counted to find that out of 31 bylines in one major newspaper, only 2 were women’s. It was the same ratio for two other major newspapers, including my own.)

Ok, the point of that paragraph was not to throw theory at anyone – I would just like to be transparent about my moorings and limitations. I believe that much of the noise you will hear from people in Pakistan – mainstream public discourse, analyst babble and industry pundit self-analysis – lacks in a properly thought-out, rigorous deconstruction of the interaction between media and the public, the impact, effect of it and the two-way flow, precipitated by social media.

There aren’t enough women journalists, especially reporters, out there in Pakistan. Their numbers are thin in tribal areas where militants and fighting both sides of the border. Given that, it is important to note that there are many powerhouses, such as Sherry Rehman, Rehana Hakim, etc. who have been editors of major publications.

But what I saw on Friday at a gathering which was meant to bring together women to talk about their ‘problems’ was a sorry excuse for self-promotion for older women who, for some reason or the other, seemed to want to position themselves in the limelight for one day.

The session opened with one journalist from the Urdu media recite Surah An-Nisa (The Women) from the Quran. She then went on to provide an explication. One of the surah’s messages is to tell the truth. And so, as I said while summing up, it was an apt choice for journalists in that sense. But in principle I disagreed with bringing in a Quranic verse because it pegged the practicality of the profession to religion. I need to remind myself, however, that if people want to use a Quranic verse to send across a message, then one has to be tolerant and accepting enough to give them the freedom of speech in that sense.

But then, next up was another female journalist, who, to my utter amazement, proceeded to sing a hymn (a naat). I did not understand what the relevance of that was aside from her getting a chance to show off her voice. And indeed she sang very sweetly. But I didn’t think that was appropriate for the forum. I certainly didn’t recite poetry when my turn came.

She then went on to tell the women in the audience that no woman can be harassed unless she allows it. This is when the hairs on my neck stood up. I could actually feel the roots heating up. Her argument is of the same ilk as ‘You’re asking for it if you’re raped’. I believe it is women like her who are completely and utterly unaware of the realities of newsrooms and male-female interaction in any workplace.

Let me give you an example. I was harassed at my office once upon a time when I was the only woman in an all-male newsroom of about 15. A young sub-editor came to work with me. I was his boss. But somewhere along the line, he developed some kind of emotions. He called me up one night, very late. I grew concerned, was there a problem, I asked him. He said, I want to go to bed with you. These were his exact words. I was speechless. Before I could say anything, he replied, ‘You don’t have to say anything, but if your answer is yes, then wear pink tomorrow.’

As he had called on my landline, there was no immediate way for me to track his number and call back. I decided to wait till the next day.

Let me make it clear that I was not overly friendly with the young man in question. I understand that sometimes you can give conflicting signals. I also understand that men in Pakistan can sometimes misinterpret certain clothing as ‘come-ons’. But I did not wear risqué clothes to the office and treated all the men there equally, and with respect.

The next day I was too frightened to go to work. My hands were clammy and my pulse was racing. There wasn’t even a single woman I could have talked to. And the one sympathetic friend I had, the newseditor, was in the head office in Lahore. I decided to stay quiet. In those days my boss, the bureau chief, was not entirely sympathetic to me. And because he was an older gentleman, I simply had no idea how I would be able to even broach the subject.
For a torturous afternoon I sat at my desk. The sub-editor came in and started his work. Everyone else came in and the reporters started filing. Then, out of the blue, the sub-editor said:

“Hey Mahim, there’s a photo on the wires of Benazir Bhutto. She’s wearing pink. Should we run it?”

Even as I write this my heart has started slamming against my ribcage. When I heard those words, I grew so frightened that I ran into the bureau chief’s room and told him what was going on.

I was lucky – and I know not many women are in newsrooms. The bureau chief said this behaviour was unacceptable and the sub-editor would be asked to leave. Fortunately, he had known me for a long time and knew that I wouldn’t like about something this serious. He called the sub-editor in after I left and asked him if it was true. Then he sent him packing. That bureau chief was an old Dawn man; he had been a star reporter at one of the oldest newspapers in the country. And that paper had a zero-tolerance policy for this sort of thing.

The perception that a woman cannot be harassed unless she allows it, is bullshit. You can be propositioned simply by virtue of the fact that you’re a female working in a newsroom – where in Pakistan you will always be outnumbered. You will be working with men from all kinds of backgrounds and beliefs.

Let me give you another example of a woman being harassed without her even ‘allowing’ it. There are two cases at least that I know of, of men making cell phone videos of women. In one case I heard that there was actual rape/assault involved and in the other it was a video of the girl’s derriere because she was wearing jeans.

Which brings me back to a ground reality. When men and women are working together, especially in a society where sex is taboo, there will be interstitial ruptures in the social fabric that will manifest themselves. It is foolish to believe that no sexual harassment will take place. In a city of 20 million people, Karachi, can you honestly tell me a woman isn’t being raped every hour, at least?

Which brings me back to the opening of this piece. I was cut off mid-sentence by a shrill woman, one of the organisers just as I started talking about covering a fire at a prostitution den. I reproduce the story below. You can find it at: http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=2006\10\31\story_31-10-2006_pg12_1

Sex, lies and the house that Ali Gohar built
* All it took was a rumour of a Pathan girl at a prostitution den to attract a 2,500-strong mob ready to burn the house down in what police feared could have sparked ethnic riots across Karachi

By Abbas Naqvi and Mahim Maher

KARACHI: A mob of 2,500 incensed Bilal colony residents lunged at the door of the prostitution den. “Burn them alive,” they screamed as the eleven people inside the house, including four children and four teenagers, cowered and prayed for the police to do something.

Outside, 28-year-old TPO Korangi Sohail Zafar Chattha and his men desperately tried to negotiate with the fuming Pathans as the police called for backup. The men were insisting that one of their Pathan women from the neighbourhood had been taken into the prostitution den that they said was run by a Sindhi woman. The freshly appointed police officer had never dreamt that barely a month into his new assignment he would be facing ethnic violence of these proportions. “I’m willing to give you anything you want,” he pleaded. “I’ll pluck the stars from the sky, but please, just calm down.” If anyone died, he thought, there will be mayhem in Karachi. He knew who Bushra Zaidi was. Backup came in the form of 600 policemen from three other towns, hundreds of rounds of aerial firing and tear gas.

According to initial reports Daily Times received midnight on Sunday, the mob had gathered after someone saw a Pathan woman entering the house. However, the next day, a visit to the police station and the house revealed a very different picture. In fact, there had been no Pathan woman as the rumour suggested or a man who had taken a woman inside. According to our findings, the entire incident had been orchestrated for very different reasons.

The house in question is a double-story yellow building on the edge of a dried up and festering nullah in the predominantly Pathan Bilal Colony. Its ground floor appears to be built for shops as there were six rooms with six doors opening into the alleyway. A staircase from the side leads up to the residential quarters on the first floor. The house is enviably large by the standards of the area and is properly built on solid foundations, unlike the katcha slum dwellings around it. Just a stone’s throw away is the National Refinery.

The house is owned by a man named Ali Gohar who died four months ago. “If you ask any truck driver from Karachi to Khyber he will tell you that Ali Gohar ka Chakla is located in Korangi near the oil refinery,” said TPO Chattha.

Gohar’s teenage grandson Ali Reza told Daily Times at the TPO’s office that his grandfather died after gangrene developed in his leg from cancer and had to be amputated. Immediately after Gohar’s death, however, the Seraiki (not Sindhi) family left for Rajanpur, Punjab, where they hailed from. They only returned from the Punjab to sell their house this Eid. Thus, it appears that the prostitution business had ended with Gohar’s death and the house had been empty for four months.

However, according to Ali Reza, on Sunday night, three Pathan men from the area came to the house and demanded he release “their woman”. When he said he didn’t know what they were talking about and there was no Pathan woman inside, they beat him up so badly he fell unconscious. When he came to, a mob had set the house on fire and the police were trying to rescue the family from the rooftop.

The Korangi police later found out that Gohar’s prostitution den had been running in the area for ten years under police protection. The police have booked three police personnel Taous, Dawood and Arif under section 155 C of Police Ordinance 2002. They used to take an estimated Rs 20,000 per month as protection money, TPO Chattha said, but adding that he believed much more money had exchanged hands over the years.

The police believe that some people, who wanted possession of the house, spread the rumour of the Pathan girl, incited the mob and created a law and order situation in order to run the family out of the area. Ironically, however, the TPO has decided to make the house a police post for two weeks. By Monday, the police colours of red and blue were painted over the ground floor.

On Monday night, the Korangi police told the family to move to another place as their old house was not an option any more. As the family was rescued from the burning house the women did not have time to get their dupattas and the children their shoes and shirts. The family wanted to return to collect their belongings but the police said that it had all been burnt. The arrested police officers were ordered to fork over whatever cash they had to the family for a meal and slippers for the children. The red-faced and reluctant cops, who made thousands off the family, claimed they had barely a few hundred in their pockets which they took out and threw at the women and children. The next day an uneasy calm settled in the area, but this is an incident few, including the police, are likely to forget. The madness of Sunday night is a reminder of how vicious disputes for land and housing can turn and what lengths people will go to just for a house.
(The officer in this story then went on a year later to receive the president’s award for bravery)

I’m not sure if the organiser tried to cut me off for mentioning the ‘chakla’ word. But if she had allowed me to continue with my sentence, she would have found out that after I used ‘sex’ in the headline, some gossipy men at the press club had used that to comment on how I was ‘desperate to get laid’.

I wanted to use this anecdote to tell the audience of women sitting there that you will be faced with the question mark over your reputation if you become a female journalist. If you slightly deviate from certain norms, you are most likely to get some kind of
unpleasant reaction. I say ‘most likely’. There are no absolutes here.

I told the women, when I started speaking, that I do not have a reputation any longer. The shrill woman stood up at that point and asked, ‘What do you mean you have no reputation?! There is a difference between reputation and character. Which ones are you talking about.’

When I had started to talk about reputation I had wanted to reach out to the women in the audience who seemed to come from conservative backgrounds. Many of them were wearing the hijab, which either covered their entire head or even their face. I had wanted to talk about covering rape – which many people won’t touch with a bargepole because the police and authorities and men in the newsroom get upset when you ask too many questions. I’ve seen this happen time and again. We sometimes put our ‘reputations’ at risk when we even mention the sex word.

I also just simply wanted to have a frank discussion on how the women felt and if, at all, certain fears were preventing them from actually doing the kind of reporting that they wanted to do. It is entirely possible I’m completely wrong – but then I would have liked to have been corrected.

It was terribly funny when the microphone went dead the minute I mentioned rape. And while it came back on, I suspected (and I could be wrong) that the women in the audience and the organisers perhaps didn’t want me to discuss sexual politics at the Karachi Press Club. I suspect that’s why she cut me off. And then maybe it was just really lunch time. But then, I ask, couldn’t she have let me finish.

If I had been allowed to finish, I would have completed saying that when men and women work in close proximity, day in and day out, attractions develop and lines get blurry. This happens all the more in a society where sex and dating is taboo and yet women are thrust in the public sphere – out of the protection of their homes. Things they say will be misinterpreted. They will misinterpret things men say. Things get messy. Biology is always at hand, threatening to undercut our meticulously laid down social rules.
Chthonian forces are always swirling underneath the surface. Let’s just be honest about it and equip our women on how to negotiate these murky waters.

And so, yes, I do not have a reputation. I don’t care for a reputation. My purity and chastity and virginity etc. will always be up for speculation by curious men. But once I call it, no one can say anything.

I wasn’t there for the second session but in the story that our reporter filed, a minister made a speech. She said, if women can undergo labour pain, they can go to any pains to do their job. Even this statement made me queasy because it was premised on
biology. But what came next was the real show-stopper. The minister said: There is sexual harassment all over the world and in all societies, but we [in Pakistan] just highlight it because we want to get [NGO] funding.