One wonders, as one is inclined to do, why public figures sometimes let utter whoppers loose. Sometimes it’s an unthinking slip of the tongue—“s**thole”, anyone?—and sometimes it’s deliberate because you thought it was clever or witty, and turns out it was neither of those. For instance, quoting Churchill in a nationally televised speech. And not just any old typically Churchillian, spiteful reference like “you are ugly, Madam, and I shall be sober in the morning” but some tripe about women’s skirts in a country where women’s skirts are not discussed, nor the bodies inside them because the only acceptable woman is the invisible one. If one is not being called a taxi or a tractor trolley, one is some quasi-naked reference, meant as a joke. I suppose the real question is why are the men in our government so casually sexist, and how is it possible in this day and age, in a culture that apparently values respect and dignity, that people still think this kind of language is acceptable.
Let’s put aside, for a moment, gender politics and its baggage of power and who wields it and how. Let’s set aside the obvious: that men in patriarchies use their inherited power to belittle and insult other men and women because they can, that like assault, verbal abuse is also about asserting supremacy in the most primal way. Let’s just talk about…talking. Being a lawyer in Pakistan is nothing like the films and television shows. You aren’t rocking a black blazer and amazing hair as you flash your steely eyes and reduce the opposing lawyer to self-contradictory jelly. You are in a crammed courtroom, fans creaking, clutching files, munshi at elbow, the opposition’s ghundas staring holes into your back from the benches. And that’s if you’re a man. If you’re a woman in courtroom then you are already a hero in my book just for making it, and staying put. It’s already hard to have to push back against the men’s club in any profession, and it doesn’t help one bit if one of the leaders of your professional community is someone who can’t tell whether “why is six afraid of seven” or strange skirt references are a better way to engage a room full of mostly male lawyers who, in all likelihood and with due respect, didn’t get the reference to begin with. It’s setting back the respect you have worked so hard to earn when the Chief Justice can make all your colleagues snigger like schoolboys and give you the side eye, and you have to try and be like the boys and pretend it’s all cool.
Because women in working spaces have to play along. They have to smile and pretend they find the joke just as funny. They can be called taxis, that extremely suggestive and sneering insult, or tractor trolleys because ha ha, body shaming is hilarious. Imagine for a minute the tables being turned and a woman parliamentarian, judge, minister of state—anyone in a public office, really, with some power—calling a male colleague a dumpster or a guttersnipe. It’s hard to find more gendered insults for men because most of our cursing energy is directed at women, but humour me. A woman of some influence telling a colleague to put on some bangles, for example. Is that acceptable? Does it sound funny? Is that the kind of language that seems appropriate to use to refer to a peer? Or is it the kind of thing that one should be self-censoring, if you don’t already?
Many people don’t think the CJ’s words were ill-judged. They probably also thought the vehicular references, when made to Benazir Bhutto and Shireen Mazari respectively, were quite droll. Notes from the Underground exists to tell them it isn’t funny or witty and that tone-deaf jokes and sly jibes are thoughtless, malicious and plain rude. Surely it behooves an educated man or woman to think before speaking? To consider the effect of one’s words, particularly when rhetoric is pretty much the backbone of your profession? One hopes this is a lesson to many well-intentioned people, and an acerbic dose to the less kind, to remember that in this day and age, everything you say and do is recorded, noticed and reacted to. “No man is an island” any more, and “the price of greatness is responsibility”. That would have been a much better quote to lead with.