By Rafia Zakaria
May 25th, 2016
“I HATED who I was.” So confesses lawyer Zainab Chughtai in a video produced by Al Jazeera Plus on the bullying and shame inflicted on young Pakistani girls and women. Chughtai’s declaration is followed by many more — woman after woman relating the crude and hurtful statements she has been subjected to by family members about the way she looks. It is a litany of shame and emotional persecution, and because it is so familiar to women, in particular Pakistani women, the video has gone viral.
This is a good thing. It can be said with some degree of confidence that nearly every woman and probably several men who are reading this article now have been made to feel ugly, inadequate or unwanted based on their physical appearance. But, as with everything else in Pakistan, the brunt of this brand of bullying also falls unequally on the shoulders of Pakistani women. As the women say, many have been harassed since they were girls and told that they are obscene, ugly, too dark, too fat, too tall and generally unworthy.
In a follow-up video made by the BBC, the group of women points out that bullying and body shaming begin very early; little girls listen to the degradations but have no means of responding to them. Instead, they take them to be the truth and the voices and aspersions become a crucial and often indelible part of the psychological geography. They will hear those disparaging voices for the rest of their lives.
Matters only get worse once they are older. In a society that otherwise claims to care a lot about propriety and honour, crass quips and conversations on the failings, the fatness, the tiredness or oldness of women by women (and also men), is entirely acceptable. Weddings, those venues of social warfare, are the prime arena for this bloody sport, the butchers out with sharpened knives to excise pounds of flesh from their victims.
Girls are starved and scolded, trussed up and painted to participate in the manically competitive marriage market.
The caring and the compassionate are destined to be the losers in this game, always unprepared, it seems, for the comments by the distant aunt, the long-forgotten neighbour: ‘Wow, you’ve just puffed up’ or ‘Beta, you should really go on a diet’. What may be left undone in these semi-public venues is taken up at home. Girls, even the richest, with the most loving parents, must be starved and scolded, trussed up and painted to participate in the manically competitive marriage market. Merchandise these days requires top-notch packaging, inventive marketing.
What is permissible at home morphs into evermore mordant iterations at work. Young women duly qualified are routinely turned down for jobs because of their inability to meet some beauty standard that usually male (but sometimes even female) employers have set for them.
In one such case, a female applicant was told she was too fat, in another too short, and in a final one too old. There are no laws, no guidelines, no restrictions at all to prevent this, and those who inflict the harm are already informed and educated. It’s not that they do not know that what they say is hurtful and unjust; it’s that they believe that they are entitled to make such pronouncements.
Zainab Chughtai and the women in the Al Jazeera Plus video are brave for their honesty, for admitting and sharing publicly the consequences of the verbal wounds inflicted on them from when they were young. There is not a female in Pakistan who has not shared their experience, her weight, her height, her complexion, her gait, her hair, her voice judged and pronounced unsatisfactory, not enough, not right. It is only when the scars inflicted on the recipients of these judgements are exposed and the damage made visible that they can be talked about.
Shaming someone, male or female, because of the way they look is an act of cruelty and it is moral change that is required for it to be understood as such. Zainab Chughtai’s organisation Bully Proof is attempting to do just that, going to schools all around the Lahore area with presentations that underscore how such treatment is wrong. Young girls must be told that they are all beautiful, that they should love and respect their bodies and expect others, all others, to do the same. It seems so simple, and yet it is a message unavailable to too many, to most, in Pakistan.
A society in which body shaming is not even considered a problem by many is one that is peopled by the invisibly maimed. Those who are hurt themselves hurt others, and a constant chain of small but deadly cruelties encircles the emotional life of nearly everyone.
Bully Proof is one small-scale attempt to correct this, to replace cruelty and disparagement with honesty and respect. The problem, however, needs much more attention and participation by anyone and everyone. Young children, particularly young girls, can be taught that the criticisms and shame that rain down on them are wrong; but ultimately it is those who inflict it who must be stopped, forced to behold the cruelty of their characterisations.
The newspaper columns of the country are routinely filled with vexing and complicated problems whose solutions are far beyond the ability and effort of the individual reader. This is not one of them. A correction of the epidemic of body shaming, where those not fitting into some constricted category of physical beauty are treated poorly, made to feel worthless and inadequate, requires the participation of one and all. On this issue, there is enough to taint all, a bully in every home, a cruel degradation on the tip of every tongue — and so the pledge to change must also encompass all. The solution here is simple: all bodies are beautiful and all bullies must be stopped, shunned and made irrelevant; perhaps then can there be a return to dignity and an end to shame.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.