By Sonya Rehman
In a bid to raise awareness about violence against women in India, Raj Shetye, a photographer published a photo-shoot which featured a model being physically harassed by men on a bus. While Shetye’s intentions warrant speculation, the shoot, once published, had a completely opposite effect. It created quite a stink online, on social media and in the media at large – why? Because critics stated that the shoot did nothing but “glamorize rape.” If you look at the pictures, it is true: one in particular features the female model in a black dress, her legs pried apart as one male model clutches, steadies her top half, while the other has his head pressed against her knee. The picture is at best, disturbingly erotic. Spreading awareness of violence against women? Right.
But I write this article not to simply lambast the media’s role in sexualizing a woman as an object (hasn’t that been done to death?), but in the hopes to shed light on how the media has had a huge role to play in making women forget their one, true superpower: feminine energy. Every woman has it.
Years ago, I was at Anees Book Corner in Lahore, buying stationary and folders with my mother. It must’ve been early evening. I was standing near my mother at one of the counters near the door. From the corner of my eye I saw a grubby young man in a black shalwar kameez enter the shop. A few minutes later, I saw the man approach the counter where we were standing. It all happened very quickly, he grabbed my chest roughly, squeezed, and made his way to the exit calmly. No one noticed. I stood there, pale, in complete shock. Nudging my mother in a daze, I told her what had transpired, but by then, the man had left the shop and was already out of sight. While my mother brought the shop down, the attendants, instead of proactively looking for the man, stood behind their counters, uncomfortable, and, embarrassed. I never forgot that incident and at times, even now, when the memory manages to seep its way back into my present, out of the blue, I find myself clenching my teeth in desperate rage to throw a punch at the phantom man from my past. I wind up feeling helpless and then, to appease myself, I concoct scenarios where I’m pummeling his face with my fists or delivering sharp, flattening kicks to his groin. But should an incident like that happen to me again, God forbid, would I be confident enough, conscious enough – in the moment – to slam the attacker? I don’t know. And that makes me feel very unsettled.
Almost every female friend of mine has had one or two (or many) horrible experiences of being felt up by male servants, harassed on the streets, suffering abuse at the hands of a man, an employer, etc. And of course, for others, the sexual harassment goes even further, resulting in rape.
In Pakistan, no matter how ‘modern’ we’ve begun to appear on the surface, society still retains a cold shame when it comes to not only speaking up about abuse, but also, acting out against abuse. I find we’ve regressed on an emotional level very rapidly. It’s almost animalistic. And I felt that deeply, standing in the book shop, ashamed, feeling utterly violated, as unsure, shifty-eyed shopkeepers looked at me uncomfortably, mirroring my shame. But more disturbing still, my very own lack of action. Why did I not react? Why did I just stand there, so winded, when I could’ve grabbed his neck and smashed his face with my fist? I’ve always been an outspoken person, yet, when I was molested by a stranger, why did I allow myself to be debased, taken advantage of?
I know so many strong women who are such remarkable go-getters, yet, most of them allow themselves to be abused, manipulated and violated by strangers, partners, boyfriends, etc. Why? Why is our strength only neck upwards? I’d like to add that I am not promoting women morphing into hulks with rage issues; I mean that would be rather easy wouldn’t it? Don’t ever shave, become butch and nurture a nasty, take-no-shit attitude, but to retain your feminine energy with unflinching self-belief takes far more work. Far more pain. Far more balance.
So why have women forgotten how to use and harness their feminine energy? Why such a lack of awareness in their gift? Women’s intuition is real and true. The strength of a woman can make or break – she can get what she wants, when she wants, however she may want it. But I am beginning to realize that women are fast forgetting how to develop and nurture their inner strength, the untapped core of what makes them female, unique, powerful.
It comes back to the media and entertainment industry: content has never before been so erotic and sexualized resulting in an invisible, colossal wave of collective female debasement. And isn’t it interesting, you would think men are scot-free, but they are not. The more objectified and sexualized a woman, the more lustful and weak-willed, the man. He is chained to his desire, chained to the fantasy of urgent sex; the chapters in the book of desire never, ever end, phantom women upon women upon women, to stoke the fire of his ravenous desire.
Coming back to Shetye’s fashion shoot, the outcry against his twisted ‘project’ is justified. The shoot stands as just one tiny drop in the ocean of the media’s active role in the dilution of the female self, objectifying her as a thing that must be urgently debased, conquered, discarded. The debasement lies in advertisements; Kareena Kapoor teasing the tip of a Magnum choc-bar with her thick lips, a sliced mango pressed to Katrina Kaif’s mouth (‘pure mango pleasure’), women used in car advertisements in tiny denim shorts, frolicking in soap suds and water…the examples are never-ending.
With women, the erosion of self-worth takes place at a very, very deep level. I’m not good enough. I need to be perfect. Will I ever be good enough? Will I ever be approved for who I truly am? Will I ever be loved so deeply and so sincerely that I will never have to face another day where I question my worth? Will I ever be complete within myself? Will I ever be able to love myself in stunning, wonderful totality without the need for male approval?
Women today, need to keep reminding themselves that they are enough. They are whole. And that they can fight back with courage and resilience. There are countless examples of women out there who’ve done just that – women who continue to remain conscious of their strength, their superpower, harnessing it like a wild horse and using it where needed. At their will.
Paperazzi, Pakistan Today