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Civility in public discourse

Venting one’s anger and frustration may feel cathartic, but if you do not engage with civility with those holding centrist views, the social movement will not grow. This is true not just in the context of the Aurat March and Pakistan’s feminist movement, but is a fundamental in any civilised society

Civility in public discourse
In the context of Pakistan’s indigenous feminist movement, one should not lose sight of the stark cultural differences between societal segments.

A few days ago, all of Pakistan’s major cities saw ‘Aurat’ marches in various shapes and forms. The picket signs participants carried covered every emotion on the spectrum from witty to angry and raised wide-ranging issues. The comments and responses on the coverage of the Aurat March were equally wide ranging.

Negative reaction was the strongest to coverage of marches in big cities like Islamabad, Lahore, and Karachi, i.e., cities that are at the forefront of the cultural evolution in this country. They included picket signs demanding the right to dress/sit as one pleases, the stigma associated with divorced women expressing relief/happiness, etc. These are real issues and rightful demands and have not been mainstreamed yet. Although the outraged coverage over selective messages may not reflect it, most signs on the ground highlighted non-controversial and mainstreamed issues such as men sending unsolicited explicit pictures to women, equal wages and educational opportunities, inheritance, etc.

There is no dearth of articles that take one position or the other on the Aurat March. I will not add to that pile but would rather like to talk about a more effective way for Pakistani feminists to put forward their message.

Social movements succeed when society at large adopt the values it puts forward. To be successful, the goal of the Pakistani feminist movement needs be to add more supporters and grow its own camp, rather than alienating large segments of the population and hardening and/or growing the opposition. Messaging approaches taken by marchers ranged from using wit, humor and poetry on one end, to shaming, shocking and venting on the other end.

Cultural evolution is a slow process. Even if many issues being highlighted today are not mainstreamed yet, in time they will be, like all others considered taboo as recently as a few years ago. To no one’s surprise, segments of our society are on very different trajectories. Every segment faces different challenges and problems and, accordingly, has different priorities.

The Aurat March was only loosely organised, which was perhaps why it lacked a focused and coherent message. The march was for a single cause, only to the extent that it was pro-women. However, once there, every woman was there for herself. With such a lack of messaging coordination, one picket sign or the other was bound to hurt normative sensibilities, and it would be unfair to place the burden of an inartfully worded message on all participants.

Keep in mind that the feminist movement of the West is often divided into four waves: The first wave (1900-1959, advocating for voting and property rights and political representation), the second wave (1960-1980, advocating for focusing on reducing inequalities, family, the workplace, reproductive rights, de facto inequalities, and official legal inequalities), the third wave (1990-2008, embracing individualism and diversity) and the fourth wave (2008-present, advocating combating sexual harassment, assault, and misogyny).

Cultural change is perhaps the most difficult and long term process. Unfortunately, in our society, where even the most basic human rights are in contention, the society in general has not evolved from the more basic needs to the level of self-actualisation.

Pakistan’s feminist movement is not merely following the feminist waves of the West, but shoulders the additional burden of making up for lost time and rolling those four waves into one. Nevertheless, it takes all sorts of people to make a social movement, and it would be equally unfair to expect all compatriots to empathise with everything that was said at the Aurat March and the way it was said.

Social movements succeed when they grow their tent and the values they champion are adopted by society. This requires convincing and converting people outside the movement. Some of those people will be amenable to reasoned arguments and open to changing their minds, while others may be firmly entrenched in ideas of the “opposite” camp and will never be convinced. Social movements should focus their efforts on the former, rather than the latter. You will never reach everyone. Venting one’s anger and frustration may feel cathartic, but if you do not engage with civility with those holding centrist views, the social movement will not grow. This is true not just in the context of the Aurat March and Pakistan’s feminist movement, but is a fundamental in any civilised society. Public discourses must leave room for the other person to be able to change their position, with dignity. Abusive language can bruise egos and cause the other side to further dig into their position.

— Photos by Rahat Dar.

— Photos by Rahat Dar.

In the context of Pakistan’s indigenous feminist movement, one should not lose sight of the stark cultural differences between societal segments. The segment championing the pro-feminist message is way ahead in its cultural evolution relative to the large majority. That is why the picket signs deemed most controversial were the ones that hurt the sensibilities of that vast majority. Many of these marchers can probably be described as people who, in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, are past securing their physiological needs, a reasonable degree of safety (to the extent it is available in Pakistan), belonging, and self-esteem, and are now fighting for their right to self-actualise. To the majority stuck anywhere in the first four stages the marchers then appear just out of tune.

Well meaning supporters of the Aurat March should not be surprised at how most people, both men and women, are selectively supporting some rights but are unable to show similar empathy or support for others, e.g., when women demand the right of divorce. Empathy cannot be one way. Those who are fortunate to be culturally more evolved need to empathise with the fact that most people in any society (regardless of place, class, education or other similar variables one may think define human behavior) are comfortable only when things go according to what they consider ‘decent’ or ‘acceptable.’

Cultural change is perhaps the most difficult and long term process. By no means am I suggesting that one should self-censor or muzzle oneself. Unfortunately, in our society, where even the most basic human rights are in contention, the society in general has not evolved from the more basic needs to the level of self-actualisation.

Do not stop expressing or practicing what you deem necessary for your self-actualisation, but when you learn to empathise you may engage in healthier, more meaningful, and civilised conversations, which may even win you a few hearts and minds.

Also read: Aurat March and its discontents

Not everyone will want to bear that responsibility, and that is okay. Sometimes people just want to be able to stand up for only themselves and not be obligated to a ‘larger’ cause, and that is okay too. But perhaps this is a luxury that well-meaning influencers are unable to enjoy because they are able to reach out to hundred of thousands of their followers on social media, through their writings, through their TV/radio shows. You will never reach out to everyone and that is not the goal. However, there are many who can be reached, who have come far enough, and only need one last nudge to cross over to the side where they are able to see the point of picket signs likes these. But when you choose to be confrontational rather than conversational, or try coming from a higher plane, you lose that influence and that’s a shame.

Discourse between people holding varying world views in a respectful, civilised manner is the only thing which is possibly going to bridge the gap and allow people to empathise with each other. When one sees that despite semantic, wardrobe, or lifestyle differences it is possible to like each other and also get along, we will be in a much better place by the time we are gearing up for the next Aurat March.

Dr Ayesha Razzaque

Ayesha Razzaque
The author is an independent education researcher and consultant. She has a PhD in Education from Michigan State University. She may be reached at [email protected]

One comment

  • We can certainly do with a little more civility and a few less keyboard warriors

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