In recent weeks, former federal minister Dr Asim Hussain was frequently shown on the media being brought for court hearings and then being whisked away to detention. No lively movie songs in the background, no comments on his hairstyle, clothes, shoes, sunglasses and no titillating, sensationalised language have accompanied the reporting of his decidedly interesting case. His hearings have also produced no meaningful smiles on the faces of newscasters, no light-hearted banter, no sneaky side glances. The reporting has been serious and focused on the veracity or otherwise of the allegations against him.
Hussain is seen as a man, not a sex object. Even if found guilty, he is believed to deserve the respect due to any citizen, especially because he is a doctor and has held high positions the in government. It is deemed inappropriate to make fun of him, comment on his looks and dress or humiliate his person.
Compare this with the treatment meted out to Ayyan Ali, the model frequently taken from prison to court hearings and back during the latter half of the outgoing year. Almost any channel one tuned into showed the same fare during the coverage of her case — some silly, raucous, loud movie song would play in the background as though this were some entertainment show. Some mindless newsreader sporting a taunting smile would read the news, focussing entirely on her dress, make-up, handbags, shoes, hairstyles, walk and sunglasses. So much so, that one often forgot what the actual issue was, as the newscasters and reporters seemed obsessed only with her body.
Ali is a woman and, therefore, automatically portrayed as a sex object. Being a model makes her doubly vulnerable to the vulgar gaze and bawdy humour. It is all right to make fun of her, to deny her the dignity and respect due to a citizen. It does not matter if she should also be presumed innocent until proved guilty. Even if she were to be found guilty, for television channels it will be not her deed that is to be condemned but her womanhood that is to be scorned and violated. She is already guilty by virtue of being a woman and a model, and liable to the punishment of being ridiculed. Her actual guilt may never be established but she is already condemned merely on the basis of her gender and profession. Never mind that she is a working woman making a living through legal means — as legal as the ones employed by the doctor mentioned earlier.
The race for ratings has made the media channels sink to such depths that they will not desist from using a woman’s body to attract the audiences even if that means demeaning women at large. Men may commit crimes far worse than money laundering but they are entitled to male dignity and cannot be made the butt of cheap jokes. Women have to be depicted in demeaning and humiliating ways to make the channels commercially successful, to win the competition with other channels engaged in equally despicable portrayals.
The objectification of women’s bodies has long been an issue, especially in the advertising industry, where they are used to sell anything from cigarettes to cars and motorbikes. Women working in advertising may have joined the profession by choice or they may have been forced by their financial circumstances to do so. Either way, their choices are fraught with danger as they are then immediately conceived as immoral or lacking in virtue. The industry that uses their bodies in a specific way is never characterised as immoral — only the woman model, basically a worker, receives such labels.
It is not only in advertising and modelling that one discerns these attitudes. They are also abundantly evident in television dramas and shows. Women are portrayed in the duality of Eve and Mary. Either a woman is a temptress, responsible for all the wrongs of men around her, or she is the epitome of virtue and a reincarnation of the archetypal mother figure. Women can be anything but human. They must fit into a false and imagined binary which robs them of the opportunity to choose to be anyone they desire. Will the media free itself from its straitjacket of greed and stupidity to let women live as human beings — just human beings, neither goddesses nor whores?
Photo: Model Ayyan Ali arrives at court in Rawalpindi on November 19, 2015|Tanveer Shahzad, White Star
This was originally published in Herald's Annual 2016 issue. Through a selection of photographs, the Herald took a look at some of the events and developments that were extremely significant in 2015.To read more, subscribe to Herald in print.